Thursday, October 30, 2014

Virtue of the Dragon

The boy confuses them, [...]. He needs to be strong, and makes himself harder. Too hard, already, and he will not stop until he is stopped. He has forgotten how to laugh except in bitterness; there are no tears left in him. Unless he finds laughter and tears again, the world faces disaster. He must learn that even the Dragon Reborn is flesh. If he goes to Tarmon Gai’don as he is, even his victory may be as dark as his defeat. ~Cadsuane Melaidhrin
Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (completed by Brandon Sanderson) presents an excellent study in contrast of the pagan versus the Christian virtues, as well as a lesson in the balance of the virtues. I will assume FULL SPOILER knowledge of the Wheel of Time. This is regrettable, but the series is about 10 000 pages too long to facilitate easy summary, and the subject matter of the essay requires details up until at least the penultimate volume. This reduces the audience even more drastically than does the venue, but we march onward ...

Given the FULL SPOILER nature of this essay, the reader is aware that Rand al'Thor is the Dragon Reborn, the soul of Lews Therin Telamon recast into a shepherd boy's body in the twilight of the Third Age, when the seals of the Dark One's prison are weakening. The shepherd business is an early signal that Rand's story will at least partially parallel that of the Christian Jesus. But I am more concerned here with the so-called Christian virtues (which I will also refer to as the sentimental virtues), rather than the Christian story per se.

The Christian virtues of Love, Faith, and Hope are a complement to the so-called pagan virtues of Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence. My thesis is that our protagonist admirably embodies the pagan virtues, and his critical defect is his failure to attend to the Christian virtues.This imbalance of virtues corrodes his character--abetted of course by the taint on saidin--until it nearly culminates in the destruction of the world. This unhappy eschaton is only narrowly avoided by a redemptive moment when Rand opens himself to the full spectrum of virtues.

Courage is the easiest virtue to drape over the Dragon Reborn. Rand displays Courage throughout the series, from that first frightful flight to town with his wounded father in tow after the Trolloc attack. Courage doesn't lack in any of his early exploits, when the series reads more like an adventure than the drama it eventually grows into. The early days out on the road with Mat, out from under Moiraine's protective wing; befriending an Ogier--that requires courage as well. In the third book he sets out on his own to seek his destiny at the Stone of Tear, where the most conspicuous prophecies about the Dragon Reborn must either come true or not. And of course he knows that worldwide devastation at his hands and his own early death will result if he does turn out to be the Dragon Reborn. He ventures into the mysterious and deadly desert of the Aiel and enters their ter'angreal-assisted trial of worth. Most obviously, he spends the entire series hunting down the Forsaken, super-powered war criminals the tales of whom are regaled to frighten children--all as a prelude to facing the Dark One himself.

Rand's sense of justice was in evidence especially in the middle to later books, after he has become a ruler by various conquests. One of the first things he does as de facto ruler of Tear, apparently an especially stratified society, is force the Tairen nobility to see to the needs of the commoners. Relief for the poor and those scattered by conflict would be a recurring concern for him throughout the story. In addition to the Prudential reasoning that he would need every channeler he could get, his creation of the Asha'man at least partially reflects his sense that no man should be persecuted or gentled just because of a condition he was born with. We see his sense of justice in his agonizing over every woman that died due to his decisions (his flavor of justice included a curiously chivalrous element). And of course, Rand is rightly horrified by the Seanchan enslavement of women who can channel.

Feats of moderation don't often feature heavily in epic fantasy, but at the very least Rand's Temperance fulfills the basic requirements of not giving in to excess. He isn't a drunk; he certainly doesn't have the gambling and womanizing tendencies of Mat Cauthon. But his Temperance also manifests in his dedication to physical training. After beginning sword lessons early on with Lan, Rand sticks with this art form long after he has armies and loyal Aes Sedai and Maidens of the Spear surrounding him for protection. He adds to this hand-to-hand combat training after falling in with the Aiel, and carries this forward through the series. Rand resists using his political power abusively, or even frivolously. Rand's Temperance keeps him in control not only of the One Power, but power more generally. Early in the series, he obtains Callandor and the access keys to the Choedan Kal, items potentially giving him godlike power. But he resists the temptation to use them, knowing he isn't ready for them (file this under Prudence as well). And he resists this temptation to heavenly power even when it comes coupled with Lanfear's more earthly efforts at seduction.
Source

We see Rand's Prudence in his military campaigns as well as his political maneuvering, most of which are fairly successful. Much of this success comes of course from his gifted advisers, but here again his practical sense shines through in his choice of counsel. He knows too when to keep his own counsel. There were solid strategic reasons--laid out by Moiraine--why Ilium should have been his next destination after Tear, but he wisely chooses instead to seek out the Aiel, informed by his own readings of the Prophecies of the Dragon. In another example of shrewdness Rand, with the "help" of the creatures beyond the doorway ter'angreal, figures out how to cleanse saidin, a thorny problem left unsolved even by luminaries of the Age of Legends. In doing so he cleverly manages to destroy Shadar Logoth. We will see later that Rand's Prudence and Courage labor also for the Dark Side.

Before moving on to Rand's experience with the sentimental virtues, I want to note that the lack of Christian virtue is surely not his only problem. Rand's biggest vice, of course, is Pride. Certainly for much of the story Lews Therin holds forth in the back of Rand's head about his dangerous Pride. This is seen in his attitudes toward the Moiraine, Cadsuane, and essentially every Aes Sedai who tries to guide him, or merely even help him. We've already encountered Rand's obsession with mentally punishing himself with every woman who dies either for him or at his order. This too is a species of Pride: he cannot keep everyone safe in his cosmic battle, and other individuals in the struggle for the Light deserve respect for their choices and sacrifices; it's not all about Rand all the time. Rand even believes he can kill the Dark One (at the end of Book One, he believes he did kill the Dark One).

Pride is one major weakness, but it is by no means the main event. His Pride is almost comic relief next to the way his sacrifice of Faith and Love on the altars of Courage and Prudence corrode his character and jeopardize the Pattern itself. This is what Cadsuane's epigram at the beginning of this essay is all about. Rand believes that defeating the Dark One at Shayol Ghul is the only thing that matters, and it must be accomplished at any cost. This is the Prudence-only worldview of brutal consequentialism. Rand believes his struggle is to rid himself of the human weakness and attachment that might cause him to falter from his ultimate goal of defeating the Dark One. This is the Dark Side of his Courage.

Cadsuane Sedai. Source
Rand the young villager of Emond's Field has the full complement of virtues, but his Faith in people is first weakened when the seed of doubt about his origin is planted during Tam al'Thor's fever dream. He and Mat are hounded by their pursuers after they lose touch with Moiraine, and they are lost in a world of strangers of evil intent. As he takes on the mantle of the Dragon Reborn, Rand suspects more and more that Moiraine is just manipulating him for her own Aes Sedai ends. Thus the person the reader knows he probably should trust more than anyone is relegated to the status of just another schemer out for her own good. By the time he has reached his stride mid-series, Rand is a paranoid wreck, seeing darkfriends, the Forsaken, and Aes Sedai machinations everywhere. He only truly trusts the small band of friends he left his village with and his three lovers. In his bleakest paranoia, he nearly murders his own father, suspecting he was in thrall to Cadsuane. Cadsuane herself is a good example of a companion whose trustworthiness had been demonstrated (she rescues him from Padan Fain outside of Cairhien, protects him during the cleansing of saidin, and again rescues him from Far Madding where he can't channel his way out of his difficulties).

There is a delicate balance of Faith and Prudence that must be maintained lest one or the other slip into vice. Faith without Prudence is gullibility. Rand really is in danger of hidden darkfriends and the plots of the White Tower. But his loss of the ability to trust warps his relation to humanity. He only halfway trusts Aes Sedai when they have sworn fealty to him, and are literally compelled by the Oath Rod to serve him. He believes the only way the world can work together to fend off the Dark is if he reigns over them. He purposefully abuses his ta'veren tendency to distort the Pattern to compel adversary negotiators to bend to his will. Part of Faith is trusting one's fellow human beings enough to relate to them as free and equal beings, but Rand increasingly can only "trust" others if they are bound and subordinate to him.

Love lingers longer in Rand than Faith. He certainly never loses the Love he bears Elayne, Aviendha, and Min. But he also considers this a failure owing to his weakness and he struggles against these feelings, believing that the only thing he has to offer any woman is pain. He forces himself to forget his village. He briefly rekindles his roots when he meets girls from his village in Caemlyn, on their way to Tar Valon to become novices. This reunion is cut short when their Aes Sedai chaperones appear and Rand resumes his emotionless persona. At least, he tries to restrain his emotions, but he shouts at the girls that he is no longer the boy from their village and leaves them cowering with a demonstration of saidin. He destroys the bonds of affection and common experience he had with these girls and resolves that this is all for the best.

I must admit to some shoehorning here. I lump in the ideas of human connection under Love in addition to the traditional compassion/charity interpretation of that virtue. Love on this view is the virtue that sustains human relationships and connections of all kinds, and includes romantic love and friendship, the bonds of affection and obligation that make family and village life possible, and the compassion and solidarity that operate at longer distances and across frontiers.

Perhaps the one person Rand really treats as a true friend rather than merely an instrument is Lan, perhaps because both characters have a similar obsession with the idea that their deaths have already been purchased (Lan's lone war against the Shadow has only been postponed by his service to Moiraine as warder). But in the end Rand sacrifices even this friendship to his misguided single-mindedness; he cannot be distracted from his own efforts and anyway Lan has his own duty to discharge. Lan, having finally freed himself of other obligations and warder bonds, launches himself at the Blight in a certain--and certainly futile--suicide mission. Rand's duty as a friend here is clear: he should either talk Lan out of his foolishness or at least send him reinforcements. It is left instead to Nynaeve to rally the Borderlands around their living legend in his quest.

Rand's terrible Prudence leads him to break any social norm as long as it serves his purpose. This is the degradation of Faith in humanity required to sustain social morality as well as Love (compassion) for those impacted. He grows increasingly comfortable with the use of forbidden balefire as he progresses, literally unraveling the Pattern even as his single-minded purpose is to save it at all costs. In one horrific scene late in the series, Rand sends a human pawn to Graendal, knowing the victim will undergo Compulsion; the disappearance of the Compulsion weave will confirm Graendal is dead as Rand erases the entire Palace and all its human inhabitants from the Pattern with balefire. This is Rand at his most inhumane. He has achieved the "hardness" he believes is required to do whatever it takes to defeat the Dark One, and it has made him capable of committing clear war crimes where innocent lives are treated as so much cannon fodder.

Hope is in some ways the hardest virtue for my thesis to swallow. Rand admirably maintains Hope quite far into the story. He creates the Asha'man primarily to be his weapons for Tarmon Gaidon, but he also intends for the Black Tower to persist and provide a home for men who can channel. Rand establishes schools throughout the nations under his rule, betraying his optimism about the outcome of the Last Battle and what might come after. Perhaps his greatest article of Hope is the effort he puts into the Dragon's Peace, which promises a legacy of world peace following the Last Battle. Hope in his success against the Dark One is inherent even in his terrible Prudence; it is its purpose.

But Hope is just the last of the sentimental virtues Rand to go. Rand finally loses Hope at the summit of Dragonmount, having transported himself there after nearly blasting the Seanchan territories out of the Pattern with balefire. Rand is suddenly gripped by nihilism, entertains the idea that there is no point to his rebirth, the renewal of the Wheel, really anything, and that perhaps the Dark One is right to will the destruction of the Pattern.
The Dragon is troubled. Source
“What if he is right?” Rand bellowed. “What if it's better for this all to end? What if the Light was a lie all along, and this is all just a punishment? We live again and again, growing feeble, dying, trapped forever. We are to be tortured for all time!” 
[...] "NONE OF THIS MATTERS!"
With this final dismissal of Hope he prepares to obliterate the Pattern itself with the power of the Choedan Kal. But, of course, something stays his hand, his humanity resurfacing.
Maybe... Lews Therin said, shockingly lucid, not a hint of madness to him. He spoke softly, reverently. Why? Could it be... Maybe it’s so that we can have a second chance.
In the end Rand thus does choose to hold on to Hope, and to abandon his internal war on the sentimental virtues. But we glimpse that with Love, Faith, and finally Hope all gone, there was nothing left but destructive nihilism, and Rand's heroic expression of the pagan virtues was all for naught. All the bravery, self-control, and cleverness of the Dragon was not enough, especially when the ruthless maximization of those virtues came at the cost of the humane virtues. Choosing to re-embrace his humanity, Love returns: "Because each time we live, we get to love again." And "He remembered love, and peace, and joy, and hope."

After this epiphany, the character of our protagonist radically changes for the rest of the series. Rand casually strolls into Tar Valon to visit the Amyrlin Seat, even submitting to being shielded without a struggle, something quite remarkable after his abduction and torture at the hands of Elaida's Aes Sedai mid-series. One could sympathize if Rand was overcome with uncontrollable tremors at the mere sight of an ageless face after such an ordeal. Rand again puts himself in a vulnerable position when he meets with the Borderlander armies stationed in Far Madding, where channeling is impossible. And where before Rand struggled to remain cold and emotionless at the many deaths caused in his wars, now he allows himself to feel the losses, and dreads the loss of hope among his people, and it makes him angry. Rand Travels in to break the siege of Maradon and, in a move unthinkable for the pre-epiphany Dragon, he sets Prudence to the side and exhausts himself by single-handedly destroying the horde of Trollocs poised to overwhelm the city. And he puts himself at risk both because he was inspired by the bravery and skill of the city's defenders and to show them that their Hope and Courage and sacrifice were not in vain. He has tamed his Prudence with the sentimental virtues.

In the end, Rand needs Christian virtue just to survive to reach the showdown with the Dark One. But he also needs Faith to succeed in that confrontation. He places his Faith in Egwene to, well, place her Faith in him and his frankly crazy-sounding plan to destroy the last seal on the Dark One's prison, as well as to know when the time was right to do so. And he needs to surrender control to Moiraine and Nynaeve in order to use Callandor for its ultimate purpose. And in the contest of dueling realities played by Rand and the Dark One, Faith and Hope are needed to finally understand that he cannot just kill the Dark One; human beings must grapple with evil in order to be fully human.

This last point reflects another major theme of the books, that evil exists intrinsically within the human soul, and it must be combated there. The Dark One is only a demonic embodiment of the evil within. This is seen with Shadar Logoth and Padan Fain, evils born of the same paranoid distrust that afflicts Rand and is actually antagonistic to the Dark One's brand of evil. And we have every reason to believe the banal, institutional evil of the Seanchan enslavement of channelers will persist well into the Fourth Age, long after the Dark One is sealed away; the a'dam is an invention of human weakness, and not the Shadow. It is significant that the greatest conflict in the story was internal, one of Rand struggling with his inner demons. I have labored to portray this long conflict in terms of virtues, specifically, the virtues of Courage and especially Prudence manifesting in the protagonist to a disproportionate degree, and their overwhelming what I have called the sentimental or Christian virtues of Hope, Faith, and Love. The most dangerous evil depicted in the story then is that evil which arises from disharmonies within the human soul, all too realistic, and not the fantastical evil of a dark deity.

Other stories could have been written to explore the harmony of virtue. Our Dragon could have been a sappy figure, in touch with sentimental virtues but lacking the Courage to march down the path ending with his blood spilt on the rocks of Shayol Ghul. Or he might have struggled instead with playing the cold-blooded utilitarian gambits that really were required of our hero from time to time. Much more might have been made of the allure of Berelain and Lanfear, and the temptations of world domination.

Mileage may vary of course, but I'm glad Jordan chose the particular imbalance he did. I began reading the series as a young teenage male, and I remember loving Rand's cold ruthlessness and talent for violence. I mean, what a badass! For the elderly harpy Cadsuane, of course, I had little to no patience, nor for his other moderating influences. In this I'm sure I was unexceptional among my fellow teenage male fans. I took a hiatus from the books around the time our Dragon nearly slaughtered his own armies in beating back the Seanchan from Ilium, and I returned with the publication of a Memory of Light, arguably an adult. I now see the macho virtues of our hardened hero I so appreciated before as maniacal vices in their obsessively amplified expression. I get the importance of Love, Hope, and Faith now in a way I never could while under the spell of youthful ideas of toughness, bravado, and above all immunity to sentiment.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

thoughts on Islam

I just finished reading a book on Islam, John Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path. Now I feel like I know next to nothing about Islam, but that's surely a step up from the nothing I knew before. The following are some quick and dirty and potentially not-so-politically correct thoughts. For those who don't know, I'm an atheist who considers himself friendly toward religious traditions (or at least non-hostile). Anyway, any Muslims or folks knowledgeable about Islam in the audience feel free to correct any misapprehensions.

The author contrasted Islam as concerned with "doing" whereas Christianity focuses on "believing" the right things. So Islam is judicial while Christianity is theological.

Islam seems strongly predisposed to politicization because of its history. Muhammed became a head of state, and much of Islam is based on the actions of the Prophet. So the Prophet's political decisions have to be taken seriously by Muslims. Muslims past (e.g., Akbar "It's a trap!" the Great and other Mughal emperors) and present (see recent Pew Research results) can craftily interpret their way to secularism, but the origin of Islam seems to present a hurdle here.

I rather like the concept of jihad, typically understood as the "struggle" to lead a virtuous life or follow the straight path of Islam. From my nascent virtue-ethical perspective, I like the emphasis that adhering to virtue is a lifelong struggle.

Islam has no concept of Original Sin. After the fact, this isn't so surprising, but I'd never realized that original sin is a doctrine peculiar to Christianity. I think it's one of Christianity's vilest doctrines, though I suppose in a way jihad and original sin are trying to get at the same idea. That is, virtue isn't automatic or easy. But jihad strikes me as giving greater agency to the individual. Original sin says the individual is wretched no matter what.

There is this principle I'd never heard of called "ijtihad" which is pretty cool. It means something like "intellectual struggle" (same root as "jihad") in a literal sense and is interpreted as "independent reasoning". This, along with the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet (Sunna), and consensus (ijma) are the four main sources of juristic authority. I found this mix surprisingly progressive and potentially democratic, but apparently many schools of thought deny or downplay the validity of ijtihad.

In the tribal context of seventh century arabia, much of what the Quran had to say about women were liberal innovations. This included limiting the number of wives a man could have, and advising against polygyny. Also, it introduced property and inheritance rights for women, as well rights to initiate divorce and education.
Shia Islam and its origin reminds me a lot of Christianity. There's a Passion story, where Hussain (the younger son of Ali, the last of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, whose reign was ended in the rebellion that ruptured Islam) fights valiantly in an epic battle against the evildoers who betrayed Ali. He dies dramatically, and Shiites get all worked up over remembering this the same way Christians get in a lather over Christ's betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. In some versions of Shia Islam, there is a "hidden imam" that will come out of occultation some day and lead the devout in a just society, similar to Christ's return. Finally, because the origin of Shia Islam was all about the partisans of Ali getting shafted by the Abassid powers that be, they share the persecution complex of Christianity, the early practitioners of which also famously suffered at the hands of the ruling elites.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What's the impact of a universal basic income on attitudes to foreigners?

Apropos of Matt Zwolinski's Cato Unbound forum.

My biggest objection to a universal basic income is that I fear it would make the populace even less receptive to immigration than it is currently, due to the conventional wisdom that people don't want to pay for social services for folks ethnically dissimilar to themselves. And of course this would be a perverse result from all ethical vantages that don't vertiginously discount the rights and welfare of foreigners. But is my fear well-founded?

The universality of a UBI might lessen the perception that it is really welfare. After all, people tend not to believe that programs they benefit from count as social assistance. Few comfortably middle class people sucking on the mortgage interest deduction teat think of themselves as welfare queens. The UBI could be purposefully framed to play up its universal aspect. This sort of decorative rhetoric was deployed by the crafters of social security, who made the program universal precisely because they worried that "programs for the poor are poor programs". Propaganda for the UBI could feature stories of this medical student who used her UBI check (Citizen's Dividend?) to fund a year of service with Doctors Without Borders and that small businessman who saved up a few years' worth of his dividends to launch his vintage auto repair shop.

If the UBI isn't seen as welfare, but just as another privilege of citizenship, then might I have some hope that immigrants wouldn't be seen as so much of a threat? If the UBI dividends were seen as secure (broad political support), then might they even act as a buffer to other fears people have about immigrants stealing native jobs. "I have to compete with immigrants for jobs, but at least I know I'll have my Citizen's Dividend in the worst case ..." And while, in my fantasy border regime, all who desire citizenship can ultimately do so, guest workers, tourists, and newly arrived migrants just aren't quite citizens yet.

These are quick and dirty thoughts articulated through the fog of sleep deprivation and I expect this avenue is just wishful thinking. More of a bleg really?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

capabilities and the impossibility of justice

In my ongoing quest to grok justice, I read Martha Nussbaum's Frontiers of Justice and was duly impressed. The aim of the book is to extend justice to areas left out by other approaches. These areas include individuals with disabilities, individuals living beyond the borders of the nation of interest, and sentient non-human species. The book elaborates on the so-called "capabilities approach" to justice.

Before presenting the capabilities approach, Nussbaum offers several criticisms of formulations of justice based on social contract theory, which she views as the all-around best attempt at justice so far. The social contract theory (Rawls's is the one usually under her microscope) fails to grapple with these three areas of justice right from the assumptions. Whether you buy into the capabilities approach or not, Nussbaum's case that the neglect of these areas represents a critical failure of theory is--to me--compelling. 

The social contract theory assumes that principles of justice can be obtained by imagining idealized representatives of society, in a condition where their personal biases and knowledge of where they stand in society have been removed, sitting together to hash out what would be most advantageous to each of them. These representatives are assumed to be motivated by self-interest, and are stipulated to be roughly of equal powers and mental capacities.

There is an intuitive appeal to basing a theory of justice on self-interest. After all, if you can get a workable theory of justice assuming everyone is in it for themselves (and perhaps their kin and loved ones), then it seems somehow more robust. There is also elegance in the parsimony of this approach. Unfortunately, the appealing assumption doesn't fit the facts. I'm no expert, but my impression is that our current empirical understanding of moral psychology suggests that humans simply cannot be well-described as selfish maximizers. A theory of justice seems fundamentally flawed if it discards human nature right out of the assumptive gates. More troubling still, if it turns out that justice does demand unselfish regard for others, an assumption of self-interest in no way guarantees to move us in the right direction.

The stipulation that the folks negotiating the principles of justice are of equal powers is troubling if we want justice to work for the weak. The idea behind the assumption seems to be avoiding the problem of one person being able to just dominate the other negotiators at will. But this gets the cart before the horse: understanding justice would seem to include understanding why it would be unjust to abuse a position of power. Nussbaum's contractarian interlocutors aim to protect the weak by means alternative to justice, such as charity or humanitarianism. But this makes consideration for disabled persons, or sentient non-human animals, or desperately poor foreigners, supererogatory--certainly nice but not actually required.

Nussbaum also points out that the assumption of independence among the individuals at the bargaining table of justice isn't just worrisome for disabled individuals fundamentally incapable of looking after themselves. Even ignoring these people, we are left with temporarily disabled people, and even more dramatically the elderly and children, who require a great deal of care. It is clear that we can't just brush a few unfortunate disabled people off to the side and hope some theory of charity will suffice for them. Taking into account infancy, youth, and old age, every individual is extremely needy in different parts of his life. Human beings simply are needy creatures.

Nussbaum's capabilities approach differs from contractarianism in that it is outcome-oriented, in some sense evaluating what a just society would look like and then working backward to figure out what the principles should be. A just society consists of one in which each individual lives
a life that is worthy of ... dignity--a life that has available in it 'truly human functioning,' in the sense described by Marx ... Marx speaks of the human being as a being 'in need of a totality of human life-activities,' and the [capabilities] approach  also takes its bearing from this idea, insisting that the capabilities to which all citizens are entitled are many and not one, and are opportunities for activity, not simply quantities of resources.
Nussbaum lists these capabilities as the following:


1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length . . . ; not dying prematurely . . .2. Bodily health . . . Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; being adequately nourished . . . ; being able to have adequate shelter . . .
3. Bodily integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; being able to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault . . . ; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction
4. Senses, imagination, thought. Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason--and to do these things in . . . a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education . . . ; being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing, and producing expressive works and events of one's own choice . . . ; being able to use one's mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech and freedom of religious exercise; being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain
5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; being able to love those who love and care for us; being able to grieve at their absence, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger; not having one's emotional developing blighted by fear or anxiety. . . .
6. Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's own life. (This entails protection for liberty of conscience.)
7. Affiliation. Being able to live for and in relation to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; being able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; having the capability for both justice and friendship. . . . Being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.
8. Other species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
10. Control over one's environment. (A) Political: being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the rights of political participation, free speech and freedom of association . . . (B) Material: being able to hold property (both land and movable goods); having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others . . .
This list is not complete, and indeed it is intrinsically open. All of these capabilities must be ensured to each individual sentient being to achieve full justice in the capabilities view. One capability can't be "bought" at the expense of another. In other words, a hypothetical authoritarian society somehow awash in material abundance cannot justify political oppression or thought control (4, 6, 10) by appealing to access to health and economic resources (1, 2, 9).

One concern that jumps out at me is the potential for conflict. Opportunities for sexual gratification, for example, require in most instances willing collaborators. But this can't be guaranteed in a way that respects the freedom and equality of other members of society. Of course, this is just an extreme example of the broader problem that social affiliation, economic commerce, access to medicine, and so on all require input from other individuals, all of whom must be respected as free and equal beings. This is just the old libertarian critique of positive rights, but the capabilities approach seems especially vulnerable to this critique due to the grand ambitions of the framework. But then, it's a jump to conclusions to think that capabilities must be enforced in some way, let alone enforced by the state.

Another potential concern is that capabilitarian justice is impossible to achieve. To the credit of the framers of the approach, it respects economic freedoms as well as other freedoms. Indeed it is to its immense credit that it makes no special differentiation between economic and other capabilities, in contrast to Rawls. But if this is the case, there will certainly be economic inequalities. Nussbaum doesn't make a big deal about this, but with technological progress, the economic elites of society will achieve new capabilities requisite for fully dignified human life before they are even understood to be core capabilities.

I have in mind those technological innovations that sweep over society and become basic necessities. I think it is reasonable to say that if an individual does not have access to electricity, she does not possess the full range of human capabilities. Internet access (I'll even go so far as to say high-speed access), mobile telephony, safe and efficient transportation, etc, all seem necessary for life as a modern human being. But these technologies didn't always exist, and they came into being gradually. Access to Internet-based social networks might not have been plausible as a core capability until a critical threshold of users is reached. Other core capabilities likely don't exist yet at all. If human immortality (or at least indefinitely delayed mortality from "natural" causes) is possible, then it seems like a straightforward derivation (1, 2, 4) that access to immortality-enabling technology must be secured for all sentient individuals as a matter of justice.

This might seem like it jettisons the capabilities approach from the sphere of reasonable ideas, but I don't think so. It's unclear to me that possibility is a defining quality of justice. And we've already seen that attempts to bridle justice with assumptions that make it easier to achieve (like the assumption of self-interested negotiators) risk limiting the concept so that it won't perform the work we want it to perform. Nussbaum concurs, "It may be true that in desperate conditions justice cannot be achieved; that does not mean, however, that it cannot be contemplated, and questions asked about how conditions arose that prevent justice from being realized." Here I would characterize "desperate conditions" as "life". The grand ambition is a feature, not a bug.

I am attracted to the capabilities approach because it is the closest idea I have yet come across at describing what it is I mean when I talk about human flourishing. This is the language I have been using lately when I think about what it is that I want society to do or to optimize. It isn't liberty and it isn't welfare, at least not narrowly conceived. But it's something that comprises both of these values, and more.

As an end note, I've been working off and on on this post for a couple months in my spare time. It's been on the perpetual back burner because of my other blogging commitments. What prompted me to finish it is the blog series on the capabilities approach that Ingrid Robeyns has recently embarked upon. It's off to a great start and if anyone finds this post interesting, I recommend heading there next.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"elitist philanthropy" and charitable prioritization

Ken Berger, the CEO of Charity Navigator, has penned an amusing takedown of his competitor and my favorite charity review site, GiveWell.org. It is amusing for more than just its transparently self-serving nature. For example, Mr Berger has modified the phrase "effective altruism", frequently employed by GiveWell and its fellow travelers, into "defective altruism".

His main complaint is that GiveWell has the gall to compare against each other not only charities operating within a common cause but also the different causes themselves.
By contrast, defective altruism is—by the admission of its proponents—an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word.
Italics are his. The idea is that an individual who is really passionate about one area of giving--say, funding and volunteering at animal shelters--shouldn't be deemed an ineffective donor because that won't save as many human lives as mosquito net distributions and deworming campaigns.
In recent articles extolling the virtues of this approach, the GiveWell blog has cited the work of several allies, among them Peter Singer, who spoke about the concept in a recent TED Talk. In an example of the Sophie’s Choice that the movement offers the donor community, Singer posed the following question: Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2000 people of blindness in developing countries? Even had he not employed the adjective “American,” which was clearly intended to make his audience feel a distinct pang of cultural guilt, it was obvious which choice Singer thought was the “better” of the two; indeed, he said the choice was “clear.” 
Nobody enjoys the prospect of weighing lives in the balance, yet it's something that reality forces upon us. Resources are scarce and tough decisions must be made. The innocent yet profound assumption at the root of "effective altruism" is that each human life is equally precious. When this is fully appreciated and the resulting charity evaluations are presented to donors, it would be surprising if the philanthropic options available weren't harshly clarified.
[In] taking on this cause and using the bully pulpit of its website as its forum, GiveWell truly is doing more harm than good to both the donor community and those thousands upon thousands of organizations that are doing much-needed work in areas that the defective altruism fringe deems unworthy.
I doubt that GiveWell is prepared to say that any subject area of charity is truly unworthy. Giving to a well-managed charity in your preferred area is almost certainly better than not giving anything to any charity at all, assuming GiveWell's more humanitarian and cosmopolitan values are not as highly prioritized by the donor.

Mr Berger goes on to ask what would happen if everyone were as ruthlessly and singlemindedly cosmopolitan as GiveWell?
GiveWell has a particular fixation with global health and nutrition charities. It at least implicitly recommends that one should support charities only in those cause areas. It is therefore not surprising that it has recommended only a handful of charities to its users. If we all followed such a ridiculous approach, what would happen to:
  1. Domestic efforts to serve those in need?
  2. Advanced research funding for many diseases?
  3. Research on and efforts in creative and innovative new approaches to helping others that no one has ever tried before?
  4. More local and smaller charitable endeavors?
  5. Funding for the arts, and important cultural endeavors such as the preservation of historically important structures and archives?
  6. Volunteerism for the general public, since most “worthy” efforts are overseas and require a professional degree to have what Friedman calls “deep expertise in niche areas”?
  7. Careers in the nonprofit sector? Since the spokespeople for this opinion suggest that it might even be ethical to have a “lucrative job in an immoral corporation” so that you can be a so-called “do-bester” and give all the money away, it is unclear who would then run the charities to which defective altruists would give.
One possibility is that the greatest humanitarian problems would be eradicated, one by one, in order of severity. This doesn't seem like an obviously bad approach to me. But more importantly this is a ridiculous rhetorical question to ask. In no world remotely similar to our own will everyone adopt the ethical approach of Peter Singer. GiveWell indeed couples its services with a particular worldview, and perhaps, it markets that worldview as it makes its recommendations. The CEO of Charity Navigator may not think that is appropriate, but it seems to me that the world doesn't exactly suffer from a glut of GiveWell's worldview.

The question that comes to my mind when reading the example above is How many people even know about this possible trade-off? An American donor will see the need for guide dogs and may even know a blind American or two, but is much less likely to see so vividly the needs of poor foreigners. Even when the needs of foreigners are observed, like in those television commercials featuring gaunt African children with flies buzzing around them, they are observed at emotional remove because distant strangers are abstract, and because of a deep, biologically ingrained inability to really feel the plight of those who are not family or who do not belong to our tribes. Even the bleedingest-hearted of cosmopolitans recognize our moral obligations to distant strangers only intellectually. 

This biological deficiency is compounded by cultural biases that favor members of our tribe and steeply discount the moral demands of foreigners. Hence the inane insistence that we should take care of our poor before we fix the problems in other countries, despite the fact that the poorest five percent of Americans lie comfortably within the 60th percentile in the global incomes. And hence the cavalier attitudes toward the massive losses of life attendant to the foreign policy of America and its allies.

These are the hurdles that lie in the way of GiveWell's peculiar worldview achieving dominance and devastating the broader philanthropic sector that provides Mr Berger with his job. The danger is not that GiveWell's philosophy is taking over. Everything GiveWell does to enable people to appreciate the needs of foreigners goes a little way toward correcting an existing imbalance in philanthropy. It does not introduce a new imbalance.

As it happens, I do agree with Mr Berger that GiveWell's top pick charities are not the only charities that deserve support. They deserve more support than they are getting, and greater awareness of this fact is the service to humanity that GiveWell provides. But you can still support the opera if you choose. There's nothing wrong with giving to your alma mater. I, for one, give most of my charitable money to GiveDirectly, one of GiveWell's top picks. But close behind (and on par if I count my volunteer efforts) comes the American Civil Liberties Union, which saves far fewer lives than, say, mosquito net distributions, but which I believe is nevertheless important for making the world's most powerful nation something closer to the beacon of freedom to the world that its citizens like to think it is. I also like to throw some money in the direction of Wikipedia when Jimmy Wales comes around begging. Not too many lives are saved by Wikipedia, but its mission of bringing the world's knowledge to every human being is profoundly beautiful, and it Wikipedia powerfully expands the capabilities of individuals everywhere to pursue their interests and further their own unique ends. And so I close with Mr Wales.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

in which I come out (swinging) as an ethical intuitionist

Reading John Rawls's A Theory of Justice as a libertarian was illuminating in many ways, not least of which was how surprisingly libertarian his ideas are. Yes, he has his "difference principle", by which no policy leading to unequal outcomes should be implemented unless it benefits those worst off in society, and yes, he advocates a redistribution of wealth. But he also proposes that certain civil liberties are absolute, and the world is not enough to justify their abridgment. That's further than even I'm willing to go.

But perhaps the most valuable thing I got out of the book was learning the name for what my own peculiar take on ethics actually is. Rawls taught me that I'm an ethical intuitionist. These are the passages from Rawls, himself no intuitionist, that led me to this conclusion (A Theory of Justice, Section 7):
Intuitionism holds that in our judgments of social justice we must eventually reach a plurality of first principles in regard to which we can only say that it seems to us more correct to balance them this way rather than that.
[...]
We cannot take for granted that there must be a complete derivation of our judgments of social justice from recognizably ethical principles. The intuitionist believes to the contrary that the complexity of the moral facts defies our efforts to give a full account of our judgments and necessitates a plurality of competing principles. He contends that attempts to go beyond these principles either reduce to triviality [...] or else lead to falsehood and oversimplification, as when one settles everything by the principle of utility. The only way therefore to dispute intuitionism is to set forth the recognizably ethical criteria that account for the weights which, in our considered judgments, we think appropriate to give to the plurality of principles. A refutation of intuitionism consists in presenting the sort of constructive criteria that are said not to exist.
[...]
The distinctive feature, then, of intuitionistic views is [...] the especially prominent place that they give to the appeal to our intuitive capacities unguided by constructive and recognizably ethical criteria.
There's a prominent portion of political philosophy devoted to ideal theory--that is, describing the nature of the ideal, just society. These attempts commonly attempt to describe--and normatize--all of human ethics with one or a few principles. So we have utilitarianism and its variants, which reduce all ethical considerations to some kind of sum of individual pleasures or happiness units minus discomforts (or utilities minus disutilities). But it's easy to walk this theory off a cliff of some absurdity like slavery, whereby the utilities of slaveowners might outweigh the disutilities of slaves (and how do you compare utilities between distinct persons?). Of course in the 21st century we all know deep down in our bones that the utilities of slave owners (qua slave owners) and their defenders (qua defenders thereof) count for, in technical terms, fuckall. Oppressors like slave owners are real life utility monsters.

Or you have "rights" paradigms, whereby ethical considerations are delimited by certain rights of individuals (or groups?), like the right to free speech or to property or to the pursuit of happiness. But rights paradigms can be driven off a cliff too by the mere question "Says who?" Are rights from God? I don't believe in God, and neither do some reasonable folks I know. Do rights come from nature or are they self-evident? They're not self-evident to me, and all a priori derivations I've seen transparently reduce to simple assertions. Even if you accept that rights are something more than nonsense upon stilts you can run into problems if you take any given right to be absolute. Imagine a thought experiment where the salvation of some large number of people required the one-time sacrifice of an innocent child. Would we really bite the bullet and take that child's right to life to be inviolable?

Or you have "contractarian" paradigms, whereby justice is determined by the deliberations of some wise--or even better, ignorant--posse of ... well, deliberators--folks like you, me, and Joe the Plumber. But of course there never actually is a contract that anyone really decorates with her Jane Hancock. And the contractarian methodology encompasses the authoritarianism of Hobbes, the liberal egalitarianism of Rawls, and the classical liberalism of Locke--at the end of the day it's really just some political philosopher describing from his armchair the way things ought to be, the particulars of which are just as susceptible to malicious thought experiments as other hopeful theories.

The point of the above is that any attempt to derive the rules bounding ethical behavior inevitably leads to absurdities if interrogated by a sufficiently ornery interlocutor, and the absurdities are usually arrived at well before any exotic desert island, lifeboat, or trolley problems are deployed to their characteristically devastating effects. And why shouldn't this be so? The thing that all of these ideal theories have in common is that they attempt to reduce complex-adaptive realities to bite-size, deterministic formulae. It is unclear to me that physical reality itself--the domain of that most hallowed and rigorous science, physics--can be described neatly in closed form by immutable mathematical formulae. Why would we think that ethical behavior, which is so much more mushy and complex, could be so cleanly described?

Of course all of these theories have been tweaked in multiple ways to take the edge off and to avoid biting some bullets, but this can only go so far without the tweaks beginning to look like contortions. And the contortions beg the question: is it the theory that provides the ethical solutions or acceptable solutions that guide the theory?

Ethical intuitionism acknowledges all this and says "Don't panic." This doesn't mean that these ambitious efforts are all in vain. Physics is useful even without a grand unified theory, and the same is true for ethics. Constructing a theory of ethics or justice can provide perspective. Where one theory of justice gives an absurd result, perhaps another can step in and offer something more useful. Is this getting the cart before the horse, picking among theories for something that gives us what we want to hear? Yes. The ethical intuitionist embraces the use of moral gut checks, acknowledging that this what we do anyway with any theory. Our moral guts have a lot of experience not only from our evolutionary past but from our everyday interactions with others in society. We check our guts for what seems right, but we continue to develop theories of justice, rights, utilities, etc, to help us understand why our intuitions give the results they do, and more importantly, to shed some light on problems where our moral guts are completely out of their element. Our intuition leads our reason on and on in an iterative dance.

If we can't rationally deduce our way to ethical truth, does that imply moral relativism? Probably, but moral relativism isn't as bad as it's made out to be. As uncomfortable as it might be at first, it is just a fact that we have no guarantee of moral truth, and likely the best we can do is fumble in the dark.

While it was John Rawls who taught me I was an ethical intuitionist, I found succor in Amartya Sen and the Idea of Justice, which I read shortly after aToJ. Sen's approach to justice is not to characterize what a perfectly just society looks like. It is instead to start with the world as it is, with its clear and present injustices, and suggest movements toward greater justice in areas uncontroversial to most moral frameworks. It doesn't matter if liberal egalitarians and Randian libertarians disagree on the fundamentals of justice if, for a given issue, their prescriptions for justice intersect.

I almost titled this post the Idea of Jelly, because it is impossible to pin Sen down to strong normative declarations. When Sen discusses human rights or other controversial, underivable devices, he merely presents them, describes their usefulness, and quickly acknowledges these devices do not solve the problem of justice when it comes time to describe their theoretical deficits. He refuses to ride any idea off a cliff.

I found Sen's treatment of rights especially illuminating. Where in my youthful innocence I yearned for an a priori, irrefutable derivation of natural rights (negative rights of course, of the libertarian variety), it never occurred to me that even were such a derivation possible it would nevertheless not be accepted by those subscribing to competing philosophical systems. Sen doesn't even try to argue that rights come from anywhere. Rights are asserted in the forum of public reason and whatever survives scrutiny is--not true--something we can work with.
The 'existence' of human rights is obviously not like the existence of , say, Big Ben in the middle of London. Nor is it like the existence of a legislated law in the statute book. Proclamations of human rights, even  though stated in the form of recognizing the existence of things that are called human rights, are really strong ethical pronouncements as to what should be done. They demand acknowledgement of imperatives and indicate that something needs to be done for the realization of these recognized freedoms that are identified through these rights.
As an ethical intuitionist, I think this is the best we can do. But on the bright side, I actually think it's enough for progress.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Commentary on discrimination and the semi-open border

I have a new post up at Open Borders: The Case. Broadly, it's about the relationship between discrimination and immigration restrictions. It comes in two more or less orthogonal parts (I'd considered splitting it up into two separate posts). I'm fairly confident in the first part, about how racism has been an integral part of immigration restrictions in the US from the get-go.
Though I view it as strategically unwise--not to mention unfair and not altogether honest--to denounce immigration restrictions as inherently racist, it's also unwise to ignore the blatantly racist history of American immigration policies. Chris Hendrix has blogged about the first major restrictionist legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but even before this, naturalization (as opposed to immigration) was restricted on explicitly racist grounds. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to "free white persons" of "good moral character". This may not be surprising for a nation that allowed legal slavery of Africans and those of African descent for nearly a century, but this racial requirement was the law of the land until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Immigration isn't the same as citizenship, yet this unpalatable history is clearly relevant to today's discussions of immigrant assimilation (citizen or otherwise). 
[...] Explicit racism in immigration restrictions persisted after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 formally severed the concepts "American" and "white". In a curious collusion of Mexican emigration restrictionists and American immigration restrictionists, "Operation Wetback" was launched in 1954 to deport illegal Mexican immigrants and limit further Mexican immigration. The dangers, of course, are that a long history of racist justifications for immigration restrictions doesn't just disappear down the memory hole when the law is officially changed and that explicit racism in American immigration policy has merely been replaced by implicit racism. One place to start looking for such implicit discrimination would be in the federal Secure Communities program, which has been criticized for encouraging racial profiling.
I was on more unfamiliar ground in the second part of the post, where I started talking about class-based discrimination and how the distinction between low-skilled and high-skilled immigration is a manifestation of this kind of discrimination. I cheated a little bit because I don't think that the reluctance of folks to accept low-skilled immigrants always comes from the kind of politics of disgust I describe. There are legitimate differences in the economic cases for the two (or more) classes of immigrants and it's fair enough that people may be skeptical about some nontrivial welfare state economic effects without me impugning their motives. And yet, for me, mistrust of the foreigner, in immigration and other matters, is fundamentally about not recognizing the full and equal humanity of some Other, which is the same dynamic underpinning racism, classism, sexism, etc.
Another, more subtle kind of discrimination is at play in the modern immigration debate, even in more enlightened quarters: discrimination against lower classes. A recent incarnation of this is the moralized evocation and denunciation of a "moocher class" composed of the lazy poor who take handouts from the government and give nothing back to society in return. The reality is somewhat different, with many upper class individuals failing to realize when they have benefited from government programs. As with racial discrimination, discrimination by socioeconomic class makes generalizations about large groups of individuals and judges them to be somehow worth just a little less than the dominant group.
[...] The low-skilled migration restrictionists do not seem to be concerned with removing poverty so much as with removing poverty from view. I suspect the distinction between low- and high-skilled immigrants is really a euphemism for discriminating against poor and lower class immigrants. High-skilled immigrants, regardless of absolute wealth levels, are usually richer than low-skilled immigrants and they are certainly more educated. High-skilled immigrants have grown up in families that would be considered culturally elite or at least middle class in their countries of origin (this is how they attained the human capital to qualify as "skilled"). As such, high-skilled workers will more easily fit into "nice" parts of the rich world, like suburbs and medical schools. And they will do the host country the benefit of adding diversity to these institutions, making them appear more inclusive while still keeping out the riff-raff. They will not need to live in dense slums many-to-a-room in living conditions middle class natives find distasteful.
I would love to read more about this dynamic. The idea that middle- and upper-class people don't even realize they're the beneficiaries of government programs is telling, and I wonder how often policies benefiting the more comfortable classes are cloaked to prevent their recognition as transfer programs while policies aimed at the poor are kept nakedly apparent as wealth transfers. This is certainly the case with things like the mortgage interest rate deduction. As a (comfortably middle-class) buddy put it. "I should have to stand in line at a run down public building to get a mortgage tax rebate check. And they should drug test me too. Otherwise I might just spend it on crack."

Anyway, read the whole thing at the Open Borders blog and tell me what you think.