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.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Martin Luther King Jr and open borders

UPDATE: I've edited this post slightly to shorten it and make it a little more readable.

Since I believe one of the best strategies for the opening of the world's borders is to cast it as a civil rights issue, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to some of the classical rhetorical pieces of the American Civil Rights Movement and read them in the light of free migration. There is one readily apparent similarity between racial segregation and immigration restrictions. Racial segregation limits the mobility of certain persons on the morally arbitrary basis of the color of their skin, and this is done regardless of whether people on the "other side" of the segregation are willing to interact peacefully. A closed border restricts mobility and voluntary, peaceful interaction on the morally arbitrary basis of which side of the border a person happened to be born on.

The work and rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr seems like the obvious place to begin. In April 1963, King organized marches and sit-ins of public spaces in Birmingham, Alabama, intentionally violating the segregation laws of the time that proscribed blacks from sharing certain public and private spaces with whites. King was arrested and jailed, and from his cell he wrote what became known as his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In the letter King responds to critics who have urged him to pursue his goals of racial equality with patience and through legal channels, rather than violating the laws of the land. There is already a parallel here to the demands of immigration restrictionists that aspiring migrants "wait in line" despite the fact that there is no real "line" for many migrants.

King begins his letter defending himself against charges of being an "outside agitator" stirring up trouble in a place where he isn't welcome. The following doesn't really relate to open borders in an obvious way, but it's a beautiful statement of the kind of cosmopolitanism that underpins the call to open borders.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. 
He moves on to defend the timing of his nonviolent activism and his decision to act directly rather than wait for political negotiations to bear fruit.
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue. 
The connection I'd like to draw here is that aspiring migrants who are scared or otherwise hesitant to migrate through unofficial channels have no political voice with which to negotiate for their rights to enter the land of their choosing. Migrants who are willing to brave the move without legal authorization of the host country gain no political voice by doing so, but by acting directly, seizing their rights in spite of the law, they raise the probability of reform just by virtue of their presence. Without the legal tension created by the presence of illegal immigrants, there would likely never be any movement toward opening borders, regardless of how powerful the arguments for open borders might be. Such arguments would be hopelessly academic.
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. 
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
For years now we have heard the words "Wait in line!" It rings in the ear of every migrant with piercing familiarity. This "Wait in line" has almost always meant "Never."
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. 
One of the most powerful paragraphs in the letter. When I read this I thought of the environment of uncertainty in which immigrants in the US live, especially in places like Joe Arpaio's Arizona, where immigrants and suspected immigrants have suffered popularly lauded degradations like forced marches in pink underwear, meals of moldy bread and rotten fruit, and childbirth given in shackles. While in the rest of America, undocumented immigrants live constantly at tiptoe stance, lest some traffic violation result in their deportation following indefinite detention in a jail cell. And this is all for the equivalent of a cup of coffee at the lunch counter: the right to live and work peacefully among those born within the border.

Meanwhile millions of our brothers and sisters in the undeveloped world smother in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of the affluent societies of the developed world, their tongues twisted and speech stammering, explaining to their children why they can't move to the places where work is plentiful, water is clean, and wages are high.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all." 
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. 
The last line speaks to one of the less savory arguments against open borders: that the global poor suffer their lots because they are less intelligent or lack the work ethic of the citizens of the rich world or some other failing. After more discussion of the differences between just and unjust laws, King sets up one of his chief foils: the white moderate.
[I] must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. 
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
It isn't the racists or the committed nativists and nationalists who are the biggest roadblocks in the way of open borders. We will never win them over and it's barely worth the effort of trying beyond countering their arguments for the benefit of observers. The great roadblock consists of basically sympathetic people who are nonetheless wary of the apparent radicalism of open borders; or people who simply do not realize the scale of humanitarian benefits on the table; or those who have no problem with immigrants personally, but assume that immigration must be zero-sum, with jobs gained by foreigners equaling jobs lost to natives.

The point of this post is not to twist Dr King's eloquence to favor open borders. I have no idea if he believed in open borders or if he gave the matter much thought either way. The point is to take the words of this celebrated moral leader and use them to show how the civil rights for which he struggled parallel the rights of international immigration. At root, these rights are expressions of the universal moral equality of human beings. King's sphere of concern certainly extended beyond African-Americans and far beyond America's national borders. In a speech against US involvement in the Vietnam War, he made this call to cosmopolitan compassion:
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.