Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Various Things

Firstly, if this is true, I, like rather a lot of people in Britain I think, will be not very happy indeed. On the topic of SNAFU, I suppose one difference here is that the Iraqi generals aren't surviving on condensed milk and an apparently endless supply of rollies. At least we have that to be thankful for. Which is so much better than not having spectacularly screwed up an occupation or wasted vast sums of money.

In keeping with my 'the root-causers are on to something here, even if it's not what they think it is' line, Chris Bertram has a nice analogy indicating that, at least as a general rule, the claim that the full responsibility for morally disgusting acts should be passed onto the perpetrator is wrong. Governments have a duty to keep their citizens safe. Fulfilling that duty means being very careful when deciding whether to take acts which would predictably provoke others to take acts which would place citizens at risk. Just as a government, for example, has a responsibility to ensure that the dangerously criminally insane are kept from causing anyone harm, and we would criticise it were it to fail in that responsibility, it had better have fairly good reasons for doing something - a category which of course can include acts of omission - which places its citizens at a higher level of risk than not doing it, or doing something else.

Balkinization reminds us that religions other than Islam have 'inspired' terrorist attacks in the West recently, and Juan Cole points out the disparity in the treatment of the two. Juan Cole also makes some rather apposite points about what does and does not count as appeasement, asking why it is, for example, that it would be appeasement to 'give in' to Al'Qaida, but wasn't appeasement to 'give in' to the Stern Gang.

Pearsall makes some sensible points about the invoking the tolerance of various Muslim societies in the past as a defence of various intolerances in parts of contemporary Islam, but I think misses part of the point of that invoking. I think that part of the point of the invoking is to show that Islam is not monolithically intolerant, just as pointing to the levels scientific and philosophical sophistication in the medieval Middle East gives the lie to the idea of Islam as necessarily backward. The point is not to excuse present crimes by past good behaviour, but to point to the possibility of future good behaviour by virtue of similar policies in the past, as it were. Also, on the 'the end of the Ottoman Empire led to nationalist pogroms', an example of a multi-ethnic empire falling apart which didn't lead to violence would be, I suspect, rather hard to find, just as something might be gathered from the implicit comparison with Nazi Germany.

Jarndyce and Blimpish have an interesting post up at the Sharpener about the appropriate policies to adopt towards the Muslim community in Britain in the aftermath of the London bombings - I'm not going to call them 7/7: bloody stupid Americanism - which gets quite philosophical. Blimpish makes two quasi-philosophical critiques of the liberalism which he thinks will fail to deal adequately the undoubted challenges that policy towards Britain's Muslims will have to deal with - reducing the number of imams with backgrounds in the radical Islam of Saudi Arabia, for example, and countering such teaching where it does exist - both related to liberalism's alleged excessive individualism.

The first is not so much a critique of liberalism, as a critique of the alleged historical origins of liberalism in the radical Protestantism of the Reformation, to which Blimpish attributes a kind of Manichaeanian desire to cleanse the world, a desire absent in religions which have interpretative traditions, as Catholicism does. The individualism, which Blimpish argues is shared by Islam, lies in the lack of holistic, measured and compromising interpretation of the various sacred texts, which then opens them to being taken out of context and distorted, as there is no authority to provide a check on radical re-readings. I'm suspicious of this claim, on three grounds: firstly, if you take Locke as the founder of modern liberalism - as you should - there is nothing distinctively Protestant, and indeed much from the Catholic natural law tradition, in liberalism, something Quentin Skinner has been arguing fairly persuasively for some time; secondly, many of the most infamous example of Manichaeanian indifference to the corrupt world are Catholic, most notably perhaps the order on the capture of Carcassonne during the Abligensian Crusade, 'kill them all: God will know his own' (examples could be multiplied however); thirdly, religions are, by definition, not borne with centuries of authoratitive interpretation guiding readings of their doctrines, so such interpretations must have evolved over time, indicating that their evolution, if it would be as good as Blimpish claims - something I am skeptical of, but not openly challenging - could happen again.

The second of Blimpish's challenges is more direct. He points to the communitarian critique of liberalism as unable to build the sense of community on which a political society, if it is to last, must rest, and, relatedly, to liberalism's universalism, which ignores the particularities of those who make up the society in question, and hence alienates them. I'm dubious about the empirical claim that this critique rests on, since it's not clear that a government needs to engage in deliberate attempts at community building - in ways that a liberal couldn't endorse - in order for such a sense of community to come into being, but more interested in the philosophical side of the critique. I think Blimpish, and communitarians generally, stray onto the wrong side of the distinction between the political and the ethical. Politics is about dealing with difference: if everyone was alike, there would be significantly less, and perhaps no, need for the careful balancings of competing interests and values that political action intrinsically involves. That difference, liberals recognise, can only be dealt with by taking the features which all share simply as members of a political body, a bundle of characteristics related to agency, the very same agency which results in difference. Manifestations of that agency in practice may be particular to individual societies, but the capacity for agency itself is not significantly particularistic.

To require membership of a community larger than that which accepts, at root, these sorts of claims and their consequences - freedom of speech and conscience, from arbitrary imprisonment, entitlement to enough resources to be the single most purposeful agent in your own life, and so on - would be to take the politics out of politics: the difference that makes politics necessary, the disagreement about how individuals should live their lives, is eliminated. Communitarians are fond of using the family as a metaphor for the state, and a particularly idealised version of the family too, but this is deeply misleading metaphor: ideally, a family is bound together by bonds of love and affection, but there is no need or even reason for me to have similar concern for the doings or success of other British citizens, beyond that they should not have rightful claims denied.

Less complicatedly but still philosophically, Will Wilkinson lays into Brad DeLong about Utilitarianism again. He also has a bit of a go about Layard, citing Coase, who advocates trading to equilibria in order to secure rights. This, to my mind makes him rather like a utilitarian: utilitarians think that the satisfaction of the sadistic murderer should be taken into account when considering policy, and Coase thinks that enough money should given to the sadistic murderer to offset their dissatisfaction at not being able to torture to death. Both of these positions are morally repugnant, and both should be rejected (edited for drunkeness).

On a non-philosophical note, Gideon Haigh points out what has been and hopefully is no longer, one of the most important advantages the Aussies have had over England is that they're mentally stronger, not only in the sense that they stand up to pressure better, but in that they're prepared to go that little bit further for everything. The quasi-ancedotal bit about the difference between Gough and McGrath's attitude to batting illustrates this quite well.

Finally, having seen the first film, thought it was nostaglic, class-ridden, jolly hockeysticks tripe - a kind of Enid Blyton for the vacuously spiritual age - and been told by those whose opinions I trust that the books are similar, why are apparently sensible and well-educated adults excited about Harry Potter?


Blimpish said...

Good response, to which some points back, first on the religious question:

1. My point about the potential for individualist religions is not meant as carte blanche for Catholicism or any other hierchical religious tradition. As you say, there have been plenty of Catholic Manicheans (although mostly in the pre-Reformation era, where 'Catholic' covered a much wider range of practices than since). But my point is that the acceptance of hierarchy and an interpretative tradition can moderate spiritual energies, not that it necessarily will.

2. I'd completely agree with you that the evolution of an interpretative tradition could happen again - although there don't seem to be many signs of it at present in Islam, and as I said on the original post, globalisation makes this a particularly stretching task.

3. Locke does appeal to a natural law tradition, point taken, although it's not always yer father's natural law tradition - it seems as much rooted in his (individualist?) idea of self-ownership as a faith in the capacity of (individualist?) human reason to see God's will. At any rate, Locke's thought is difficult to see in anything other than the context of the late Reformation in England. He was raised a Puritan, I believe? I haven't read Skinner on this, but I remain to be convinced - not to say that there aren't Catholic influences or symbols, but that Lockean liberalism owes more to Rome than to Geneva.

Then onto liberalism and community:

4. I guess I'd take issue most of all here in how you characterise the communitarian position. If I may, I think you suggest that (A) communitarians seek a binding ethical identity, which would in effect extinguish politics - the management of differences in identity; while (B) liberals use politics and so allow ethical identity to remain a matter for individual choice. But I think this is a strawman - what communitarians seek (I accept I probably am one) is not a total subsumption of politics within ethics, but an understanding that not all ethical questions can be left open for differences to be managed politically. That isn't to say that there is no private domain left, only that the natural limits to the private domain can't be left at the Harm Principle or any other abstraction - that the boundaries tend to evolve with a community's sense of right and wrong.

5. Further, I'd say that it is the communitarian sense of bargaining between the public and the private that makes politics what it is - about whether we allow for disagreements to be resolved through private means (tolerance, negotiation, etc) or through public. The liberal conception you propose seems to me just administration of rules to ensure (A) maximum individual freedom, defined to include justice; and (B) social peace to avoid disagreements erupting. The communitarian argument is that our practical understanding of freedom and justice (to refer to liberal totems only) is always evolving, and that social peace will best be maintained by ensuring our institutions reflect that evolution.

6. "There is no need or even reason for me to have similar concern for the doings or success of other British citizens, beyond that they should not have rightful claims denied." Forgive me Robert, but I'm glad you're in a minority in taking that view. And, empirically, do you know of any nation that has lasted on the basis of such mutual indifference? And, if you hold to this view, I assume you're against (and you might be) redistribution beyond that necessary to avoid material poverty?

Rob Jubb said...


thanks for the response, which is thoughtful and interesting.

On 1: Fair enough. I suppose the question then becomes whether anything else can moderate the various forms of world-abnegation that tend to appear in many religions (and not just there). Given that the vast majority of Britain's Muslims do not seem to have given in to the form typical of suicide bombing, perhaps it's less of a problem than we might think.

2. If anything, I'm inclined to think that globalisation might make the emergence of a single interpretative tradition more likely: the spread of the Saudi Arabian version of Islam seems to be an example of this.

3. I think that a self-ownership reading of Locke is demonstrably false. Given his set-up of the world as owned by all, some prior claim would have to justify appropriation from the common, and hence it can't be a self-ownership claim doing the work (analogy: in the absence of a existing right, the self-ownership claim would be like a burglar demanding the products of their labour on what they had stolen). Anyway, not vitally important.

On 4 & 5: I suppose all this is a question of degree. The communitarians you describe could, at a pinch I think, include Habermas - because of the signficance of dialogue in the account you give - which I'd argue is probably drawing it a bit widely. Likewise, the account of liberalism seems a bit restrictive to me, but... The important question is not whether there is a distinction between ethics and politics, but how sharp that distinction is: insofar as communitarians believe politics is just (personal) ethics writ large, they make a mistake I think. They are also too quick to ascribe to liberals the supposed sin of abstraction, but that's another problem.

Perhaps I should clarify the statement about my concern for fellow Britons. I have a special concern for them insofar as I live in the same political community as them and so am partly responsible for the laws they live under, but qua subjects of the same political community, that is the limit of my special concern for them. There might be additional special concern for members of the same culture or the same society, but those are not political, at least in the sense of the rules by which a given polity governs itself.

I do favour quite extensive redistribution, at least in the abstract, as redistribution would, in my view, fulfill a number of ignored rightful claims. It doesn't seem to me that I have to have any special concern for someone to recognise that laws I implicitly endorse through my membership of a given political community violate their rights, and to be motivated to change those laws by that recopgnition.

Again, thanks for the response,


Blimpish said...

Ok. A response on the points where we're more in disagreement; observations otherwise too...

1. Agreed, but the impact of every one suicide bomber is sizeable enough that it matters; and if British Muslims 0.01% potential suicide bombers, that's nigh on 0.01% more than the rest of us.

2. Good point, but I think global media tends to be very superficial, and that events and actions might be more significant in shaping mass religious movements.

3. You doubtless know much more than me on Locke, but some other objections to the Skinner view (and apologies for being slippery on arguments - this one got me thinking more). Locke's Natural Law certainly isn't (as best I recall) much like the premodern Natural Law - primarily because it moves away from a cosmic teleology, deriving law from assumed human ends, in favour of a more direct set of assumptions about justice and government and the means necessary for living together. Very much the modern, Locke is concerned with 'how' we live rather than 'why'. Further points: first, Natural Law isn't incompatible with Protestantism; and second, Locke's defence of 1689 - complete with appeals to Hooker - is hardly in keeping with liberalism-as-Catholic inheritance.

As you say, anyway, not vitally important to our discussion - but very interesting subject nevertheless.

4, 5 & 6. I think the point of your fellow-feeling for other Britons relates to one of the key differences between communitarians and liberals: it relates to the division between polity and community.

For communitarians, the division between political community and culture/society are essentially contiguous (if with some rough edges); for liberals, as I think you say, political communities can be distinct from a society.

In that way, the respective positions make sense - if a polity is tied to a society, and depends upon it, then keeping laws in keeping with social norms make sense; if a polity is a more arbitrary arrangement over part of, or several, societies, then laws' efficiency and match with universal principles make sense. The empirical question (another time!) is therefore whether the fates of societies and polities are tied together in the way communitarians think they are.

(Incidentally, I thought I recalled you were redistributionist. The thing I don't get about this kind of liberalism is that it rejects a claim by a community to substantive moral norms, but then appeals to a - controversial - morality to justify those rightful claims you speak of.)

Rob Jubb said...

Quickly - Bloglines is offering three weeks of things to read and it's late - on Locke and the redistribution thing (you're quite right about the polity/community distinction, BTW, which is why Howard arguing for tolerance and the rule of law as communal values gets up my nose in quite the way it does: they're politcal, not communal, values). On Locke, I think that Locke does appeal, quite explicitly, to a theological notion of human purpose, and re-reading Chapter five of the second Treatise will make this clear. On redistribution, it's not a problem for liberals that the values they appeal to are as a matter of fact controversial, because they - quite properly, I think - are to a certain extent indifferent to the values which a community does actually adhere to. What matters is not whether the claims are controversial, but whether they are, quasi-abstractly, justifiable/correct/valid/whatever. The assumption that they must not be controversial is an obviously conservative one, which draws on the idea that a political community must be a community of another kind as well.