Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hayekian feminism: a challenge to libertarians

It's an understatement to note that libertarians (who are often male) are frequently hostile to feminism, and especially to the concepts of male privilege and rape culture. A typical libertarian response I've seen to these ideas is that they unfairly put men in a defensive posture. The male libertarian who doesn't just automatically dismiss the idea that men have systematic advantages over women will often protest that he shouldn't have to apologize or feel guilty for the advantages he happens to have. But this is an uncharitable interpretation. Feminism asks not that men flagellate themselves with guilt, but to acknowledge their systemic advantages as a first step to addressing the root causes of the problems of patriarchy. Mention of rape culture provokes the response that not all men are sexual assailants, and they shouldn't be treated as such. Of course, not all men engage in violence, but not all men have to for a culture to exist and for its effects to be felt widely.

Charles Johnson's "Women and the Invisible Fist" describes the mechanism of this last point in terms libertarians can appreciate. His argument is that rape culture, or the patriarchy if you prefer, can be usefully understood as a spontaneous order, à la Hayek. The spontaneous order that libertarians typically extol is a thing of beauty: individuals, acting on their own initiatives, with their own limited information, for their own ends, create in aggregate a pattern of economic productivity and exchange capable of satisfying the needs and desires of millions of people, all without a central authority running the show.

This is all accomplished on the basis of dispersed, consensual interactions. But spontaneous order can just as well arise from dispersed, coercive or violent interactions. The obvious example of this is biological evolution itself, the original inspiration for Hayek's thinking about spontaneous order. Nature is famously red in tooth and claw, with nearly every innovation dearly bought at the cost of some predator starving to death or some prey being eaten alive. Order can just as well emerge out of dispersed, violent human relations, without conscious design. But Johnson can say this better than I can (emphasis in original):
But nothing conceptually requires that emergent orders need be benign orders. If widely distributed forms of intelligence, knowledge, virtue, or prudence can add up, through many individual self-interested actions, into a benign undesigned order, then there's no reason why widely distributed forms of ignorance, prejudice, folly or vice might not add up, through many individual self-interested actions, into an unintended, malign order. So might widely-distributed, micro-level practices of violence; since libertarians are centrally concerned with individual freedom from violence and coercion, the possibility our threefold distinction raises of an emergent but non-consensual order must surely give us pause.*
[Susan Brownmiller's] hypothesis that stranger-rapists serve a Myrmidon function for male supremacy, with benefits that redound not only to practicing rapists but to all men, is best understood as arguing that the pervasive fact of rape, and the threat that its pervasiveness inflicts on all women, produces a spontaneous (emergent) but coercive order, in which non-consensual micro-scale actions inflicted by unrelated, anonymous stranger rapists, end up reinforcing a macro-scale pattern of male dominance over women, and the cultural and institutional superstructure of patriarchy. 
Feminists highlight the far-reaching significance of the everyday fact that the threat of rape constrains women's range of free action. These constraints operate through felt danger and through explicit warnings: don't walk alone; not after dark; not in that neighborhood; don't go to that party; not dressed like that; watch what you drink; watch what kind of "signals" you give off. Paternalistic double-binds often narrow the range to a vanishing point: don't leave a late-night event without a man to walk you back; don't leave with a man, unless you intend to invite him in--or you'll "give him the wrong idea," and who knows what could happen then? Women are warned about the dangers of crowded public spaces like subways, parties, or concerts while simultaneously being warned about the dangers of empty, secluded or private spaces like parking garages, alleys, empty country or a man's house or car. The double-binds construct both public space and private space, being either alone or accompanied, as pervaded with a lesser or greater degree of danger; ultimately the only space constructed as "safe" is male-protected space. And the reliability of male protection closely linked to personal connections with men, within a limited set of very specific, structured relations--usually either paternal authority, marital protection, or heterosexual availability. 
[...] The desire to protect others from violence is, in itself, a personal virtue, not a social problem. But the danger is how tempting and easy--and how corrupting--it is for men to take the psychological step of going from an attitude human solidarity [sic] to a fantasy of male rescue, of coming to see themselves as defined by their identity as a Protector in contrast to frail womanhood, and of coming to see women as uniquely dependent by nature--rather than uniquely threatened due to the chosen actions of other men. And to go even further, to try to make sure that women seek and depend on and stay within the scope of a man's "protection," whether or not they really want it--by using intimidating and restrictive warnings, by harassing women--blamed as foolish or wanton--who step outside the dependence of that "protection" or the stiflingly close boundaries of those "safety tips." That kind of imposed dependence can just as easily become frustrating and confining for women, and that kind of power can just as easily become corrupting and exploitative in men, as any other form of structural dependence and power can. Libertarians and anarchists who so readily see this dynamic when it comes to government police and military protection of a disarmed populace, shouldn't have any trouble seeing it, if they are willing to see it, when it comes to male protection of women.
Do read the whole thing. I think it's the most brilliant thing I've read all year. And for an example of rape culture at work, read this recent Rolling Stones article on UVA (possibly triggering recounts of rape). 

The challenge to libertarians resistant to feminism is to take this quite libertarian argument seriously. If libertarians genuinely seek a world in which voluntary relations are the norm and coercion is minimized, then they should seek to understand systemic coercion. To do this they must grapple with feminism in good faith.

*The three-fold distinction mentioned is consensual versus coercive, polycentric or participatory versus directive, and emergent versus consciously designed order. I'll leave the detailed explanation of these terms to the text.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Virtue of the Dragon

UPDATE 2014.10.31: I have added a bit of detail here and there and edited some typos.
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. This particular catalog of virtues isn't the one and only rendering. There's inevitably some arbitrariness, and I will be liberal with my interpretation of what these virtues comprise, especially Faith. 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--sexist--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. One counter-example to this is Rand's persistent problem with a very intemperate anger.

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 the 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. I have already mentioned anger. Rand's biggest vice, though, 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 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 epigraph 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 warped view of Prudence as ends-justify-the-means, where other virtues that normally soften Prudence are disregarded. 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, an instance of his intemperate facility to anger. He destroys the bonds of affection and common experience he had with these girls and resolves that this is all for the best.

I 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 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 argument to accommodate. Apart from a spell of depression following the assassination of Herid Fel, 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 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!” 
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 shielding 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 is 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, not of the Shadow. It is significant that the greatest conflict in the story is internal, one of Rand struggling with his inner demons. I have labored to portray this long conflict in terms of the virtues of Courage and especially Prudence manifesting in the protagonist to a disproportionate--even vicious--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.