Monday, January 31, 2005

Elizabeth Anderson on Taxes, and Choice

Elizabeth Anderson has been posting for some time at Left2Right on taxation and property rights, arguing that saying 'it's mine', 'I have a natural property right to it', and 'I deserve it' are not good arguments against taxation, because, respectively, saying something's mine does not give you an absolute entitlement to it, absolute natural property rights are unjustified because they are not particularly economically productive and tend towards contract feudalism, and market distributions are not the basis of desert-claims. I'm not sure I endorse all the things that she claims, but her discussion of Locke is particularly good, even if she does leave out the 'enough and as good' and 'nothing can be left to spoil' provisos on acquiring natural property rights he gave, which would reinforce her point, because this would emphasize the way in which even natural property rights are best restricted for the common good (or rather, the good of individuals who do not yet hold property). In general, the idea that liberals should reclaim Locke from his unfortunate association with Nozick, who definitely does oh so surprisingly forget about the restrictions on natural property rights, and the libertarian fringe more generally, putting him back at the heart of the liberal pantheon where he belongs, is a good one (I know that Locke's views about property rights change after money is introduced, and things can't go to waste and people can work instead of starve if there isn't any property for them to appropriate, but the point is that he thinks that property rights require justification, and that any half-decent justification isn't going to leave them absolute, which makes him a liberal).

Elizabeth Anderson is generally a good thing, I think, not just because of her posts on Left2Right, which have been good when I have seen them, but because of her opposition to a trend in Anglo-American liberal political thought. Since the publication of John Rawls's 'Theory of Justice', a lot of the debate in Anglo-American liberal political thought has centred around quite abstract principles of distribution of goods, mainly because Rawls placed fairly centrally in his theory the difference principle - that the distribution of the primary social goods (income, wealth, opportunity, status and so on) should be arranged so as to be to the long run absolute advantage of the least well off group in society. Increasingly, the thought has been that distributions should be egalitarian, and the debate has focused on what the metric, in the words of Gerry Cohen, of equality ought to be, or, more simply, exactly what should we be trying to distribute equally - goods, welfare, opportunities or whatever. Personally, I'm a bit dubious about the idea that we ought to be distributing whatever we're distributing equally, but that's another post. What I'm interested in here is the idea that what distributing stuff equally means is equalizing the results of brute luck, that the metric of equality is outcomes of events over which we have no control.

This idea has much intuitive plausibility, because it ties entitlements to resources (or welfare: there is a separate argument about what the outcomes we are morally interested in are) to personal responsibility for the costs and benefits that accrue to the individual in question. If we are not personally responsible for a given cost or benefit, it is equalized, and if we are personally responsible, it is not. For example, what is says to do is, if I lose my house in a freak storm, give me a new house, and if I lose my house gambling on the stock market, nothing, because I am not responsible for not preparing against the effects of freak storms, and so shouldn't bear the costs, whereas I am responsible for gambling on the stock market, and should. Theorists who espouse these view have come to be known, perhaps somewhat pejoratively, as Luck Egalitarians, because after all, for them, the metric of equality is luck: it is just bad luck my house got destroyed by the freak storm, just as it is just good luck that I happen to be born to relatively wealthy, intelligent parents living in (what became) a comparatively nice middle class area of London, and since I have personally done nothing to produce either outcome, I am properly compensated for the costs of the first, and have no proper claim to the benefits of the second.

Anderson however, in her article 'What Is The Point of Equality?' (in 'Ethics', January 1999, just in case you a) have access to a university library with such things in it and b) cared), launched into a vituperative attack on Luck Egalitarianism, decrying it as intrusive, excessively moralizing, and demeaning, amongst other things. Again, I am not sure about all her points are fair - I think she's writing against a caricature of Luck Egalitarians at times, even if it is a caricature she is fairly entitled to draw from their basic principles - but she is very good on one point that Luck Egalitarians have generally missed, and which draws, depending on your point of view, either a disturbing or political expedient similarity between them and the free-market right. Her point is that Luck Egalitarians have left themselves no ground to criticize the costs attached to any outcome, but must take the costs which societies, at the moment, usually through the market, impose on outcomes as given (alright, this isn't strictly true, since it is brute luck that anyone lives in any given society but once this is noticed, Luck Egalitarians are embroiled in a deeper, more metaphysical difficulty, because it is brute luck that you live in a society with any given distributional system, and then all costs and benefits are a matter of brute luck, which must leave them in something of a pickle, because they have no baseline from which to assess the justice of any outcomes). This seems politically expedient if you think that left-wing distributional policies have got a bad press because they seem not to care that people make unwise and sometimes immoral choices and grant them benefits anyway, that they don't care about personal responsbility, and disturbing if you think that we ought to have some ground on which to criticise the costs which accrue to any given choice.

For example, some Luck Egalitarians have argued that people who live on the San Andreas Fault should not recieve government aid because they chose to live there, knowing there could be earthquakes (this is incoherent on the earlier argument about all distributions being brute luck, and on the consideration that they moved there knowing that government aid would be forthcoming if there were earthquakes, but I think they're all wrong, all over the place, so this doesn't seem surprising to me). Since it is option luck to build there as well as to live there, we shouldn't even be imposing building regulations on buildings in earthquake zones: it is altering the benefits that would otherwise accrue to those who built there by forcing them to build in a certain way. Of course, Luck Egalitarians can launch into a spiel about what properly constitutes option luck, so choices which we might consider coerced - under the threat of physical violence or economic deprivation, for example - no longer count as option luck, but rather as brute luck: personal responsibility is abdicated when we had no reasonable alternative. This doesn't help them though, because we can imagine cases where costs accrue to genuinely voluntary choices which are simply horrendous, and which Luck Egalitarians can say nothing about. If a law was passed saying that all non-marital sex was punishable by death, the brute/option luck distinction would be of no help: in most cases, people have pre-marital sex or cheat on their spouse not because they are coerced but because they want to, yet Luck Egalitarians would be compelled to say that we ought execute anyone who was foolhardy enough to do either of these things because they knew that was what would happen to them if they got caught. The more politically relevant case is having children: there seems to be a moral case that people ought to be given a proper opportunity to either bring up their children themselves by stopping work, or pay someone else to do it, despite the fact that jobs don't automatically pay more once you have children, or let people take much time off. The same could be said of caring for sick or elderly relatives.

I'm not saying that personal responsibility doesn't matter, and that the costs that societies impose on certain choices are never appropriate, just that we need some criteria by which to assess when it does and whether those costs are appropriate. Luck Egalitarians have alienated the possibility of doing that by focusing solely on the brute/option luck distinction, and have, in doing so, made common cause with some people that I think the academic left really ought to be avoiding (people who say the poor are poor because of their poor choices, for example, rather than because of the crappy circumstances they grew up in, or the costs that society imposes on those choices). There are some theorists who have been incorrectly labelled as Luck Egalitarians who defend, under certain conditions, the market as an appropriate distributional mechanism - Ronald Dworkin is the immediate example - but what distinguishes them from Luck Egalitarians is that they are concerned to justify the costs that the market imposes, a project which I believe fails, but which at least gives them some criteria to criticize the costs attached to distributional mechanisms, something which Luck Egalitarians have deprived themselves of the theoretical resources to do, despite the fact that we are quite properly interested in doing that criticizing.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

National Identities

Pearsall has been posting for a while (here, here, and here) on European attitudes towards immigration, ethnic minorities, and, connectedly, on European senses of national identity. I share all of his concerns, particularly about the level of misinformation which characterises British debate about immigration. I'm not sure that it is the most egregious campaign of deliberate misinformation perpetrated by the right-wing press - for a variety of reasons, I think that dubious honour goes to the moral panic over crime rates that inevitably rise regardless of what any respectable statistical analysis claims - but it's got to be fairly high up the list. I do have a residual worry about Pearsall's account of national identities though, particularly in 'Things Americans don't understand about Europe'.

The claim in particular that I'm not happy about is

"European societies are still, beneath the veneer of modernity, essentially tribal societies. The borders between the European nation-states as they stood in the aftermath of World War II were essentially boundaries between highly homogenous ethno-lingual societies."

Conceding this - which he later repudiates, pointing to a more or less continuous history of groups and individuals moving from one state to another since time immemorial - gives half the ground to the anti-immigration nuts, by allowing them to legitimate their construction of a national identity which is substantially ethnically based. Alright, it's only descriptive, in that it merely points to an alleged fact of ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, rather than to a moral claim about the proper basis of a given national identity, but allowing the right to say 'this is how it is' is allowing them to go a long way to adding 'and you can't change it, so don't try'.

What I think is interesting about this is how deep the myth of these pre-existing national identity is. Pearsall contrasts these European identities with a thinner more open American concept of national identity, which, because it is more inclusive, makes it much more difficult to run a divisive, anti-Other, line in political discourse, because no one is Other: after all, we're all Americans. I think this understanding of American national identity is itself flawed, and probably part of what Americans understand it to be to be American. What the comment illustrates a failure to understand are the historical processes by which national identities are formed, a tendency to reify those identities as if they were something outside of the more general historical process.

For example, British national identity, insofar as such a thing exists, rather than English, Scots, and Welsh national identity, for example, is substantially the product of eighteenth century Protestant individualistic liberalism, portrayed in opposition to the Catholic absolutism of the Continent, where the plain-speaking English are seen as God's chosen people, leading the way out of darkness into the light of a rational, just and godly commonwealth. It also has tropes about decline after a semi-mythical Victorian era, related to the slaughter of an entire generation in the fields of Flanders, and the impotence and waste of the interwar years, which, when combined with the idea of being the bearers of the standard of freedom, gives rise to an idealization of the second world war where we fight on against all odds, plucky and undaunted, despite the improbability of success. This is just not a deeply ethnically based conception of national identity: although it does have ethnic aspects, those have gradually faded, and have tended to be tied to a set of particular, more central values which are not of themselves ethnic.

This is far from the whole story - there are distinctive political, class and (sub)national narratives which contribute to, alter, and, on occasion, outright reject, the narrative which a primarily English establishment has often been able to create, control and promulgate - but the point is that all notions of national identity are the result of an attempt to give coherence and meaning to a set of historical experiences which create a society by giving it access to a store of shared meaning which others do not have. These stores of meaning can be contested, and are constantly being reshaped and re-evaluated, but basically operate to tie a group of people together by encouraging them to see their pasts as bearing a common meaning. Conflicting groups, struggling to gain the adherence of the population, to mobilise them, to legitimate their goals, compete over the precise meaning of particular events in the narrative, and shape them to their purposes, allowing for quite proper differences over exactly what it means to be British. For example, the Conservatives saw in the eventual victory in WWII a legitimation of much of that which had gone before, whereas the Labour Party saw it as a vindication of their claims that Britain deserved better, despite their basic agreement about it as a struggle against the illiberal, repressive regimes of the absolutist continental Europeans, typical of the plucky Brits, with their national mission of flying the flags of liberty, restraint and decency.

When thinking about American national identity more generally, we can explain it by reference to the historical experience of Americans, just as we can with European identities. It has many of the same Protestant roots as British national identity, although it tends to be based in a more radical Protestantism because of the vision of the New Jerusalem, the City on the Hill which would be a shining beacon to the corrupt Old World which drove the first British settlers in New England. The doctrine of manifest destiny, which still has a significant place in American foreign policy - its role as the bringer of democracy to the world, for example - can certainly be seen in this light, as can the tendency to see America as the home of freedom from superstitious notions like those of thick concepts of national identity. Again, events since then have had their effects: the influx of Catholic Irish and Italian settlers has partly muted the Protestantism, although not the religious tone more generally, for example.

Pearsall's specific complaint against European and particularly British national identity was that its thickness meant that it was much more contested and that it was much less inclusive, meaning it was much more divisive. I'm not able to offer the same perspective on American national identity as Pearsall is on British national identity because I haven't lived in the States, as he has in Britain, but it doesn't seem to be any less substantially contested. He gives the example of people in Britain being hostile to the Union Jack, and contrasts this with the self-understanding of the child of Dominican immigrants to the States, who feels aggrieved that the British are not appropriately appreciative of the role Americans played in WWII, a conflict that happened before any of his ancestors moved to the States. I think that Pearsall just misunderstands the role that the Union Jack plays in British national discourse here, and that the comparison isn't particularly helpful.

The Union Jack belonged to a particularly jingoistic strand of nationalist conceptions of British national identity with associations with colonialism, even before it was appropriated by the National Front. I see no reason that my conception of my national identity should be sullied by association with the white man’s burden, xenophobia and outright racism: I can be British, and have a strong sense of British national identity, without buying into a particularly romanticised version of that nation’s past or racism. Indeed, the national flag just does not occupy the same place in British, and I think European, national life that it does in the States: just as no one has the flag on their lawn, no-one burns it. The idea that America is the saviour of the free world, to whom the Europeans ought to be grateful, however, is a fairly uncontested and central aspect of American national identity, related to the original settler’s self-understanding as superseding the world they had left behind, acting as a guiding light for it, and one would expect any American, especially one who had been in the Armed Forces, to endorse this militaristic aspect of that identity.

The problem with this tendency to reify national identities, to fail to see them as constructed in this way, is that, like seeing European states as quasi-tribal, it concedes too much ground to the nationalist right. Rather than see nations as built around common stores of meaning, which are not exclusive, but rather open, capable of alteration and adaptation to new experiences, it sees them as built around pre-existing notions, which cannot be altered and so will exclude some. Once this is admitted, it is a very small step to arguing that those excluded from that set of notions, which could be thickly ethnic and linguistic in a way that a sense of national identity generated by historical processes could not easily remain, should be excluded from the nation itself. Doing that means saying that a thick, often ethnic, concept of national identity is a proper pre-requisite of living together in a nation at all, which is exactly the idea that the nationalist right appeals to. I’m not saying that Pearsall does this, just that it is worth noting that national identities are the result of an often quite deliberate process to create national identities, and are inherently contestable, and that doing this is the best way of heading off the nationalist challenge, because they cannot see national identities in this way, on pain of losing the coherence of their view. Nation states are probably the best way of instantiating our need to have some form of governance that exists at the moment, because national identities do tie us together, but not in the way that nationalists, and perhaps Pearsall, think they do.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

A New Link

The Voice of the Turtle has been brought to my attention. It's very good. I particularly recommend the dictionary.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Yet More On Italy (sort of)

The Guardian today has a piece on a number of apparently peaceful protesters who beaten nigh on to death in Genoa in 2001 in a raid by the Italian police on a school which they were staying in. I'd quite forgotten about this, although I'm sure I was fairly exercised about it at the time. Now, I know that there's a general sense in the blogosphere that the Grauniad is a shameless promoter of sectarian liberal causes which cannot be trusted to be honest, but a) if half what this piece says is true, then this was really, really f*cking disgusting behaviour on the part of the Italian state, and b) it makes, or allows others to make for it mostly, an interesting argument, that a deliberate tactic was adopted by a number of Western countries of encouraging police brutality towards anti-globalization protestors in an attempt to silence them. It does strike me as reasonably unlikely that such a large-scale police action at such a high profile international meeting would not have been discussed amongst, and implicitly sanctioned by, at least the security services of the states there, so maybe the accusation is fair.

If it is, that's chilling. First, there's the old liberal free speech point: the line at which the right to free speech ends is at most at the line of gratuitous, deliberate insult, and these people were apparently nowhere near that line. Second, and more important, the rule of law - that agents of the state will not subject people to violence, will not imprison them without trial, will not deny them medical treatment - is foundational to any just government, to any government even attempting to be just, and not only was that broken here, but it seems to have been part of a deliberate policy of breaking it. It doesn't matter what the people who are not having their legal rights respected are doing, the state must uphold the law if it is to retain any moral authority at all. If it doesn't, it becomes them, it becomes much worse than them, because it is an entity whose existence is only justified by the need to uphold the rights it is currently using the full extent of its powers to violate. It absolutely failed to do respect those rights here, on a scale that is almost beyond imagining.

Postscript: Chris Brooke has provided me with a link to an eyewitness account at the Voice of the Turtle. Read that too.

Scanlon, Reasons, and Presentations

When I originally said that I would write something else soon about reasons after the piece on argument, I really did mean it. Really. Equally, I did think I would have something interesting to say about Scanlon's 'What We Owe To Each Other' after Thursday night, but we ended up talking about, insofar as we talked about Scanlon, a perhaps rather arcane distinction between desires and reasons (Scanlon's position seems to be that reasons, which he characterises as 'considerations in favour of x', are primitive, in the sense that they cannot be explained by reference to anything else - a reason just is a reason, and if you don't understand that, there's nothing else I can say to you to explain what they are - and that they provide all the motivational and justificatory force required for actions, just as they are more commonly taken to do for beliefs: the difficulty lies in the position of desires, which Scanlon characterises as non-evaluative urges, which could themselves provide information on which reasons might be based, but are not either motivational or justificatory). So I'm not going to talk about what Scanlon says about reasons, although, partly because he is such an impressive and apparently common-sense philosopher, and partly because I'm already rather sympathetic to the objectivist moral stance he is espousing, I think he's right, but what I have said about reasons.

I gave a presentation on my thesis to a graduate research group my department runs on Thursday before the reading group met. This wasn't the first time I've presented to groups of fellow graduates and academics, but it was the first time anyone other than my supervisor had seen substanial parts of the argument in my thesis - and my supervisor had been, quite rightly, given the stage of writing up I was at, more concerned to sort out stylistic issues than the details of the argument. Understandably, I was quite nervous, but I think it went OK: I could have done with producing a hand-out, because I was trying to compress quite a lot of argument into a relatively small space, and I think it was as a consequence a bit difficult to follow at times, but no-one really laid into me (which may of course be because it was difficult to follow, but...). Anyway, much of my argument turns on what count as reasons (without going too much into the arcane details of contemporary anglo-american political theory, I think that what properly count as reasons when considering the basis on which citizens can consent to the coercive authority of the state is wider than a lot of post-Rawlsian theorists do), so I had a few things to say about reasons.

I suppose there are two key claims, which I think are compatible with, and probably follow from, what I said in the post about the good of argument: that some reasons are reasons for all, even if not everyone does think they are reasons, and that assumption, in any form, is not of itself a reason for anyone else. The thought experiment for showing that some reasons are reasons for all involves slaves. If I want to enslave a group of people, their reasons for not wanting to be enslaved - that they will lose their autonomy, be mistreated and so on - seem to also be reasons for me not to enslave them. I cannot merely brush those considerations in favour of them remaining free aside because they are not directly my considerations, but must take them as over-riding any moral case I might have for enslaving the potential slaves. So some reasons are reasons for all. I think we must think this though, or else we will be unable to respond to those who do not take moral considerations seriously: what are we to say to the potential slave-owner who retorts that they do not care about the wellbeing of the potential slaves, if we cannot say 'it does not matter if you care or not, because the reasons they have for not wanting to be slaves are so weighty that you cannot in all good conscience ignore them'? We would be unable to justify our refusal to let people own slaves, or to allow injustices of any sort, because the scope of morality would only be as wide as those who accepted it.

The problem with assumptions comes up in my thesis because of religious groups, and so my examples are to do with them, but this doesn't mean the problem is restricted to them: individuals of any sort of belief are vulnerable to assuming things, and then asserting that those assumptions are reasons for other people. Any bald preference is in this sense any assumption: what I think of x is irrelevant to your reasons, unless I can show that there is good reason for you to also think that of x. This is why religious groups can be a problem for political theorists who value consent, because they have bald preferences in favour of what they take to be the word of God, which we tend not to think can be the basis of consent for other, non-religious, people, but without which, they might be thought to refuse their consent. The way round this problem is just to point out that religious groups have nothing which can show that non-religious people, or members of other religious groups, ought to agree with their claims. There are a lot of conflicting claims about the word of the Lord, and no way to tell between them, as well as the fact that no-one can show that He even exists in the first place to have words at all. Taking the word of God as claimed by any one religious group as a basis for political arrangements would then be like taking the word of someone chosen at random as such a basis, if not worse, because the person chosen at random could probably point to considerations in favour of their claims, whereas a religious person is operating on a necessarily private faith alone. All this is equally clear of bald preferences though: what matters is that support can be given to the claims in question.

Some one like Posner is here going to say that I'm begging the question, that at root, all that lies at the bottom of my conviction that slavery is wrong is that I believe that slavery is wrong, not any independent fact about the matter. This answer has a lot of rhetorical force, because there will, almost inevitably, come a point at which I am going to have to resort to, if questioning is persistent and anal enough, just stipulating some moral claim: causing physical harm to other people is wrong, or not letting people shape their own lives is wrong. I don't think this shows that there aren't reasons though: it shows that we can't show to someone who does not share our most foundational moral beliefs that those moral beliefs are correct. Given what I've said about being able to justify our beliefs to others, those two things might seem to be the same: after all, if I can't convince someone of something, that's at least a prima facie reason to reconsider my position on it, providing they are being reasonable, taking my arguments seriously and so on.

What Posner misses, though, is the way that outside of a common universe of meaning, there are no independent facts - or if you prefer, merely facts - about anything at all, because we are literally being senseless unless we can ground the meaning of our utterances in some agreed framework. If I refuse to accept that 1+1=2, showing that any of the rest mathematics is true is going to be incredibly difficult, just as, if I am prepared to posit the existence of goblins inside a car engine despite evidence to the contrary, proving that the internal combustion engine functions in the manner we know it does is impossible. The point of the post-Wittgensteinian linguistic turn in philosophy is to force us to realise that we must work within existing frameworks: there is nothing immune to skeptical doubt, and nothing that can be said against or in favour of anything, unless we are prepare to use the concepts we have got in something close to their normal sense. This is not necessarily conservative, because we can, using the connections between concepts, reform and restructure the webs of meaning in which we live, but it does rule out radical skepticism, including radical moral skepticism. Thus, it's just part of the meaning of 'causes harm to other sentient being' that it is pro tanto wrong, and part of the meaning of 'what is all things considered wrong' that I should not do it.

Buongiorno, Notte

It's not that unusual to make films about relatively recent political traumas - the 2002 dramatization of the events of 30th of January 1972 on the Bogside, Bloody Sunday, or Oliver Stone's JFK, for example - but Buongiorno Notte is one of the better ones I have seen. It's an account of the kidnapping and murder (yeah, that's sort of a plot spoiler) by the Red Brigades of Aldo Moro, former Italian prime minister, and then the leader of Christian Democrats, in the spring of 1978.

The real strength of the film - apart from the fact that it's fairly uniformly well-acted, well-shot and so on - is its quiet, accumulating liberal humanist horror at the awfulness of what the kidnappers are proposing to do, and by extension, any terrorism. The dialogues between the imprisoned Moro and the leader of his captors provide a perfect example of this: Moro is portrayed as a humble, reasonable, individual, aware of the complexities and difficulties of the political process, accepting of his probable fate, in the face of whose calm, collected argument the leader of the Red Brigade cell is reduced to asserting, without support, simplistic Marxist axioms. The point is that acts of kidnap and murder cannot be justified, that when confronted with someone who is not a caricature of an exploitative capitalist, but rather a genuinely moral person, who is not only able to undermine their ideological justifications, but bears his fate with dignity, the utopian fantasies of the Brigade members are exposed as precisely that. There is a point when, trying to get Moro to bargain for the release of fellow Brigade members from prison by writing letters to various political figures, Moro asks the kidnappers to listen to him read one of the letters, gently pleading for his life, asking for his family to be spared, reminding his readers of the horror of murder, and one of the kidnappers begins to cry. When asked why she is crying, she lies, claiming that the hypocrisy of the bourgeois morality the letter uses to make its pleas is unbearable for her, when it is clear that she thinks that Moro is right, that it is a terrible, marking thing, always infinitely regrettable and here unjustifiable, to do, to murder another human being. There are other wonderful moments in the film - a family singing a partisan song from WWII, and Moro wandering, confused, around the streets of Rome, in a dream sequence - but this is the best.

Although this is a form of political points-scoring, I don't think it's a form of political points-scoring we should condemn or regret: rather than being a partisan account of a particular set of events, prepared to force the truth into line with what a view of their causation and meaning requires, which purports to be a kind of factual account, it is almost allegorical. To be honest, I have no idea what relationship the story told by Buongiorno Notte bears to the facts, if indeed they are fully known, about what went on between Aldo Moro and his kidnappers, but by concentrating not on who ordered the kidnapping, or whether the search for Moro was bungled, but instead on the dynamics of the relationship between the captors and their captive, the film is able to extract a moral - killing involves a huge, almost incomprehensible, moral loss, and there is almost nothing that can make up for that loss - which in a way tells you all you need to know about the political significance of the events it describes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Republicanism

I know that I said yesterday, when linking to In Medias Res, that the next substanial thing that I posted on would be some more stuff about moral argument, justification and reasons, and I will do that eventually, but my political theory reading group (yes, I enjoy political theory so much that I voluntarily read bits of political theory and then go and disucuss them with people: admittedly in a pub, but still...) is doing Tim Scanlon's 'What We Owe To Each Other' this term, and the first chapter is all about reasons, so I thought I would wait until after we had met tonight to do anything on reasons again, so I can talk about stuff which gets raised this evening.

What I'm going to write about instead is Republicanism, in the sense of the desirability of living in Republics, rather than in the sense of the ideology which binds together, rather disparately I suspect, the followers of George Dubya. Understandably, in the aftermath of Prince Harry's immensely stupid and rather offensive fancy dress decisions, there has been a little wave of anti-Monarchism sweeping the (British) blogosphere: The Virtual Stoa has got quite excited about it, and provides links to a number of other people who have also got quite excited. Personally, I've never been that bothered about the British monarchy. This is because, despite the fact that the role of head of state is inherited is grossly undemocratic, the monarchy has no real political power. This should be caveated: the ridiculousness of the public providing not only a huge income to a family of very wealthy upper-class twits but also private residence in a number of palaces, filled with immensely valuable and interesting objet d'art, which properly belong to them, is obvious, and it ought to be eliminated, but that is fairly clearly not the same thing as saying it is a matter of serious public importance that we get rid of the monarchy as an institution. I had also been somewhat troubled by the problem of what to do instead: an elected president would just seem to be multiplying political positions for no real point, might run the risk of actually using their powers, which could provoke minor constitutional crises for, again, no real point, and might be some deeply idiotic choice, since after all, why would it matter, as they have no real political power. So, my position on the monarchy as an political institution, in the narrow sense, could be summed up as 'it's not very important, and I can see some problems with most of the alternatives, so it's probably best left alone'.

Chris Brooke, however, has brought up an alternative which I think is perfectly sensible, that the Speaker of the House of Commons assume the ceremonial role of the monarch, which wouldn't seriously multiply political positions, wouldn't run the same risk of minor constitutional crises because the Speaker already has some powers, and wouldn't have a direct mandate so is less likely to exercise the other ones - if we didn't just get rid of them altogether - and, finally, already has a fairly sensible election procedure. This only solves one half of my dilemma though. I'm still not sure that the expenditure of political capital it would take to remove this particular vestige of pre-democratic government would be a prudent use of it, because it is still the case that the monarchy has very little real political power (I know that that's a matter of political precedent, and technically they can do all sorts of things, but everything is a matter of political precedent in the British constitution, so that's not an argument against monarchy, but against having an unwritten constitution). I think that instead of directing their efforts mostly against the monarchy, Republicans, whilst keeping up with the ridicule, ought to be more concerned with what is another and more serious hangover from feudal times: the second chamber.

The House of Lords, or whatever it's supposed to be called now, does have genuine political power as the 'revision and more careful consideration' part of the legislature, and yet it is currently staffed by a set of lifetime sinecures, appointed by party political oligarchs. This is no better than having people as legislators because they are the distant descendant of a bastard child of a king, or of someone who was particularly efficient at killing people - well, when I put it like that, perhaps slightly better, but not much. It is deeply undemocratic, and Republicans ought to think that that is seriously wrong in the same symbolic way as the monarchy, but also seriously wrong in the non-symbolic way that direct appointees of members of the government are sitting in our legislature. Now, more or less everyone thinks that's wrong, so the expenditure of political capital required to build up momentum against it should be less than that needed to get rid of the monarchy, which can look a bit like an unnecessary and slightly vindictive ideological hang-up. There is, of course, the practical political consideration that we need something to replace this set of cronies with, but, given it's not so long since the government perpetrated this particular piece of gratitious nepotism, there are a fair few floating about. My personal favourite - and I admit I haven't given this a great deal of attention - is Billy Bragg's: a second chamber elected regionally by proportional representation from the general election counts. If Republicanism means anything, it means, as Billy Bragg said in another context, 'No power without accountability'.

Disclaimer: I like Billy Bragg's songs. This may have influenced my choice of alternative. In fact, I may have written this entire post just to work him, and that quote, into an argument about politics.

Getting Back To Nature

Russell Arben Fox at In Medias Res has an interesting, if very long, post about the ethics of trying to remove some of the unnecessary complexity from modern life. It touches on, in a rather less polemical spirit, the issues that I raised in the 'Food, Italy and Politics' post last week, as well as a number of others, and deals with them all very well, I think. I may, once I have re-read it and thought about it a bit harder, say something about it myself. However, now is not the time: I have to take some books back to the library before I incur any (more) fines, have already promised something more on reasons, which ought to take priority, and have already spent all the time I would have spent in a class which was cancelled writing about cricket.

Why Geoffrey Boycott Is Right, or Why England Should Be Worried About The Ashes

As no doubt only a tiny proportion of you noticed, England achieved an impressive Test match victory against the South Africans on Monday. Impressive batting by Strauss, Key and Vaughan in the first innings, grit and then strokeplay by Trescothick in the second and finally an inspirational performance by Hoggard with the ball to run through the South Africans on the final day ground out what had seemed an impossible victory at various points. This is very pleasing: England have shown mental toughness and no little class to beat a side who must have thought that they had regained the momentum and England would roll over after having lost the previous test. Still, I think there must be some serious worries in the England camp, particularly about the Ashes.

Geoff Boycott claimed, in the aftermath of the third test, that England would struggle to achieve anything in the Test they just won without Harmison, yet Harmison's figures in the fourth test were 12.5-4-25-0 and 14-1-64-0. These are not the figures of Harmison in his pomp, even on what should have been a relatively helpful pitch, and although England did win, this is a serious worry. Hoggard is not the kind of potentially terrifying prospect Harmison in top form is, but an immensely persistent and usually accurate and nagging workhorse who just lacks that little bit of oomph to make him genuinely world class, even at his best. This isn't to say that Hoggard didn't deserve his best figures in test cricket and his first ten-for - he has been a key element of England's success over the past year, and their improvement before that, precisely by being the dogged kind of player always prepared to give everything for the team - but that while a good test player, he is not anything more than that. So although Boycott was wrong about whether England could win without Harmison, I do think he has correctly identified a real problem. Harmison is England's only potential world class strike bowler, and in the absence of a world class strike bowler, England are going to struggle.

There is also the consideration of the batting, which Boycott also draws attention to. Although it was less obvious in this test - Trescothick's 180, Vaughan's 82* and then 54, and Key's 83 meant there were substanial contributions by the rest of the top order - England have been over-reliant on Andrew Strauss in this series. He has scored 612 runs in eight innings, top-scoring in the first five, being denied that claim in the sixth by some vigorous late-order hitting when the match was lost, and then regaining it in the seventh, even if he only got a duck in the eighth. When Strauss has failed, so has the rest of the England batting line up, apart from on Monday. This is not good: the beauty of England's performances since the series in the West Indies has been the way in which when one player failed, others took their place, the way the side played together, admittedly something of which seemed to have returned over the weekend.

Now, I don't think that these points mean that England are going to lose the next test, and thus draw a series they really should have won. The South Africans lack any decent back-up seamers, good as Pollock and Ntini (at home) are, and their middle order is a little fragile: Rudolph's average falls fairly substanially when you take out his 293 runs for once out against the Bangladeshis, and Dippenaar's is fairly poor even when you include his 178 runs for once out against the Bangladeshis, while none of the other players they've tried there have exactly exuded confidence either. The momentum should also be with England, so I'd've thought they should tie up the series at the end of the week. What is the real worry is the Australians.

With the exception of the Bangladeshis in the summer, this is the last series before the biannual ritual humiliation rolls by again. Unless England get Harmison back to form, and sort out their batting, particularly that of the middle order, they will not have a hope, despite all the confidence engendered by the excellent results over the past year. The Australians have world class batting all the way down to seven, and Hoggard's persistence is not going to unsettle them enough to prevent at least a couple of them making big scores: after all, he averages more than sixty against them with the ball, and it's not like he wasn't settled in the side when he went to Australia. Good as Flintoff is, and good as Simon Jones can be, if they're coming on with the Aussies set and scoring as quickly as they do, they're going to struggle as well.

Equally, relying on Strauss to get most of the runs is as a plan going to come unstuck in the end. Fair enough, he's survived and prospered against Pollock and Ntini, who are by no means mugs, but this run of form cannot last forever. The bad old England propensity for terrifying batting collapse has resurfaced, and you can be sure that not only will the Australians have noticed this, but England will have, and they cannot have Strauss going into bat knowing that as soon as he goes, he will be sat in the pavillion watching the Australian attack run through the rest of the batting: it will inhibit him. This is particularly the case if England want Flintoff to prosper, I think: Flintoff does best when he is not actually needed to score - that hundred against the South Africans when they were last here was glorious, but England had already lost the match, and most of his scores against the West Indies and New Zealand were not in desperate pressure situations - and so the middle order must give him a platform. This means Thorpe and Vaughan, who must be regarded as the bedrock of England's middle order now Hussain and, I suppose, Butcher, are gone, must come into consistent form.

So, well done England, but improvement is required...

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Beginnings of World Domination

The Virtual Stoa has linked to me. He's not the first person to link to me, because I know Pearsall of Pearsall's Books quite well, and told him when I was setting this up, kind of obliging him to link to me, but he's the first person who I've not harrassed into linking to me, to link to me. So, kudos to The Virtual Stoa. It's a little weird actually, as I've been in Oxford for four and a half years, including a year and a half exlcusively in the specific bit of the relatively small department Chris Brooke teaches in, and I've never (knowingly) met him.

Monday, January 17, 2005

A Little Bit Of Housekeeping, And An Interesting Link

A number of people (well, one is a number) have asked ridiculed my choice of name for this blog. This is really fair enough - calling things after vaguely obscure science fiction novels whose titles are inspired by poems which have footnotes is really a bit pretentious - but I feel that I should at least, in the spirit of my last post, make some kind of attempt to justify myself. Phlebas is referenced at least a couple of times in T.S Eliot's 'The Wasteland', by name in the fourth stanza, and by the clairvoyant on line 47. The fourth stanza seems to me to be in the spirit of Shelley's 'Ozymandias', which I like an awful lot - all the that quite proper disrespect for the pretensions of those who supposed that they have attained a position of authority and solidity, beyond the reach of historical contingency, so well expressed - quite apart from the poem itself, which while quite pretentious itself, is also rather good. The Iain Banks novel is, I suspect, named in this spirit, quite apart from also being rather good as well. It was also the first thing that came into my mind after another dual quotation was rejected - Interesting Times, which is both the title of Eric Hobsbawm's biography, which supports the keyboard for my laptop, and so is constantly in my line of sight when I sit at it, and the curse of a people obviously modelled on the Chinese after which a Terry Pratchett (a bit pulp, I know) novel is named - which I think would have also been pleasingly apposite.

I've also decided that I'm going to follow a general policy of linking to threads on other blogs which I have been commenting on, so, here is another Crooked Timber discussion about a piece of research which shows that the level of autonomy you have at work has a serious effect on your life expectancy. The reason for doing this is that I think the main virtue of the blogosphere is that you might, just might, persuade some people that they're wrong about things, and posting here isn't going to do that, because the chances of them just accidentally coming across my blog are fairly minimal, at least until I achieve a level of recognition appropriate to my immense wisdom. That said, I might say something about both England's magnificent test victory yesterday and about the implications of the things I said about reasons on Sunday tomorrow.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Why We Ought To Argue

I was home in London on Friday night - the younger son of family friends was having a going-away-for-gap-year do - and as can happen when you combine people and alcohol, the time-honoured problem of setting the world to rights came up. Unsurprisingly for a political theorist, the topic of setting the world to rights is quite close to my heart: certain members of my family think that I can become rather too excited about the possibility of a good argument about the legitimacy or desirability of particular acts, decisions or states of affairs. I think this tendency of mine is probably equal parts quite proper intellectual curiousity and probably less defensible competitiveness, but then, if you don't like a good argument, you'll probably think the proportions are somewhat different. What I hope to persuade you here though, is that there is an obligation of kinds to provide reasoned backing for a moral claim, and that because of that, even if I do get a slightly unseemly pleasure from disagreeing with people, and ocassionally raise my voice a little louder than is polite, having a good argument is a quite morally proper activity.

Exactly what constitutes a moral argument was a hottish topic of discussion in the blogosphere around the end of last month, because of this. Now, I think Posner's wrong about a lot of things he says in this post, but the interesting thing he says, which I think is at the root of the wrongness of his other statements, is that "much or even most morality seems based, rather [than on reasons], on instinct, emotion, custom, history, politics, or ideology". Because Posner views all putative moral claims as rationalizations in this sense, for example, there is no substantive difference between my moral claim that, say, 'slavery is wrong and ought to be banned', and my moral claim that, say, 'Big Brother is a blight on modern life and ought to be banned'. Anything I can say in support of either is just a rationalization of a particular emotional, instinctual reaction to a particular feature of the world. This is simply obviously false: slavery is an institution which subjugates and mistreats people on a massive scale, denying them almost every chance to shape their own lives, and only someone who had no moral sense at all could regard it with equanimity, whereas Big Brother, for all that it is voyeuristic and exploitative, is apparently enjoyed by large numbers of people, and is consented to by the participants.

This isn't all that's wrong with what Posner says - relativism is itself incoherent, and relativism being used to support the opening up of issues to the democratic process is even more incoherent - but the fact that reasons can be given for moral claims raises a further question, whether, given that moral claims can have reasons, we are obliged to be able to justify our moral claims with reasons, if we are going to act on them, or commend them to others. I think we do have such an obligation: when we commend a moral claim to someone else, we are saying to them, 'do this, it is right or good', and they are entitled to ask us why it is right or good. Habermas's theory of speech acts claims something like this, that every time we speak to someone else, we attempt to enter into a relationship to them, of promising to be at a certain place at a certain time for example, or of stating that it is true that the world is round, and that for the attempt to enter into such a relationship to succeed, they must accept its basis. In the case of promising, they must accept that there is a social institution of promising, by which one person binds themselves to producing some outcome in the future, and in the case of stating facts about the world, they must accept that there are some valid methods of investigating the empirical world. This will sometimes mean justifying the existence of the basis of the relationship: for example, if someone disputes an empirical claim I make, then I am required to vindicate the methods by which I came to the claim, for otherwise, my aim in making the empirical claim to them, that they accept the empirical claim, has failed.

Habermas's theory has one obvious implication, that if we are making moral claims, we ought to be able to give reasons to justify them, or else we are failing to equip ourselves properly for some of things we might have to do in making moral claims. If we don't have reasons for our statements, then we run the risk of people we make them to not accepting them, which means that the aim of our statement, getting the other person to accept it, has failed. If other people don't accept our statements, if they don't think that our attempts at justification are adequate, then, unless we have agreed to disagree, we surely ought to give up our belief in the statement. After all, it is unjustified, for since we haven't convinced the other person that the considerations we came up with do enough to support it, and they are similarly suitated with regard to their ability to assess the importance of these considerations, meaning that the considerations do not support the statement: it is unjustified and therefore, as far as we know, false. This makes reasoned discussion - and sometimes reasoned argument - a key way of seeing whether our beliefs, moral or otherwise, are justified, because, after all, we can on ocassion rationalize, in Posner's sense, our behaviour to ourselves, whereas such rationalizations will often be exposed when offered as justifications to others. If we think Truth, or at least its proxy, justification, are important, if we think it is important to act on the basis of best evidence we have, then it is important to discuss and argue about things. This means, although I might take too much pleasure in it, arguing about stuff is a morally legitimate activity.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Food, Italy and Politics

One of the books I got for Christmas was a 'Dear Francesca', an account of the movement of two families from the Abruzzo, in central Italy, to Edinburgh, where they eventually met and set up a deli called Valvona and Crolla, which is now somewhat posh, I understand. It is written in the form of a potted family history recounted to a grandaughter, and also includes general culinary advice and recipes. I like food and enjoy cooking, and my better half is Italian, which means that I automatically have a willing partner in crime for my enjoyment of food and cooking, as well as being interested in Italian life, so there's every reason to think it would be a good present.

However, 'Dear Francesca' is, I think, in many ways a deeply reactionary book. It embodies an attitude, which is worryingly part of the mental wallpaper of Guardian-reading liberals everywhere, who ought to know better, towards food, and Italian food in particular, which fails to understand the ways in which food and eating are tied into often very traditional ways of life. Another good example of this is Matthew Fort's 'Eating Up Italy', where he travels up Italy on a scooter, visiting restaurants and food producers as he goes. Both eulogise Italian peasant cuisine, organic farming and the relaxed pace of life revolving around gigantic meals: if it didn't take hours to make, hours to consume, and doesn't use only ingredients produced by the local farmer in the manner his great great grandfather did, then it's just not good enough. If you bought in a supermarket, heated it up in the microwave and eat it because you're hungry and want to get on with the rest of your life, then you have failed. As I said, I like food, and I like eating several course meals with family and friends, so I ought to be sympathetic to this kind of thing. I'm not though.

What both books ignore is the set of social arrangements which often sustain this kind of relationship to food and eating. One of the perenial claims about the virtues of Italian life is that good, locally sourced food is cheap and widely available. Good food is cheap in Italy because Italy has the highest ratio of small businesses per head in the Western World, many of which sell food, and so salumeria have to keep their prices low in order to hold onto their custom. The reason Italy is able to sustain so many salumeria with such low profit margins is largely because salumeria owning families evade paying taxes at a stupendous rate and work ridiculously long hours from a very early age for what is, even with the tax-evasion, a virtual poverty wage. Generally, poverty wages, ridiculously long hours, child labour and tax evasion are bad. Since this is what sustains the availability of cheap good food in Italy, I think we should be a little more cautious about singing the praises of this aspect of Italian life.

There is also the issue of exactly who is going to be doing all this immensely time-consuming cooking. I'll tell you who: Mamma, the life-giving, life-sustaining icon around which all Italian life revolves. Her proper place is the home and the hearth, providing care and affection for the men-folk who venture out into the harsh realities of the world to bring her the material means to work her wonderous magic. The Italian family is a deeply conservative institution, and Italian attitudes to the proper place of food in life are strongly linked to this institution.

All this conservativism understandably links into mini-rants about faceless capitalists and bureaucrats destroying the time-honoured and proper patterns of life of these poor people. Matthew Fort, for example, during his travels goes to an Adriatic fishing town, and bemoans the regulations the EU has imposed on the fleet there. Now, I don't know what regulations the Italian government, through negotiations with other EU countries, has passed affecting the Italian fishing fleet, but neither does Matthew Fort (or if he does, he doesn't say). The chances are though, that as more or less everywhere else, fish stocks are dwindling, and unless some regulation is passed a genuine tragedy of the commons will occur, where there are no fish left at all, because it is in no one person's interest to stop fishing.

In short, the attitude towards food and eating both these books evidence is socially reactionary, and is only able to justify itself by ignoring the way in which such attitudes are linked to obviosuly bad social practices and pretending that the good which many of the developments they explicitly and implicitly oppose has brought doesn't exist. Supermarkets have made available to Britons food they had never heard of forty years ago, let alone seen or eaten. We don't tend to eat vast meals as families as often anymore because we have other, better, things to do than slave over a hot stove for hours every night. Food safety regulations (another of Matthew Fort's bugbears) are designed for the health of the public, not to destroy small businesses. I'm not saying that these things are unreservedly good: supermarkets treat staff and suppliers appallingly, spending time with your family is usually a good thing, and a lot of national and supra-national regulation leaves much to be desired. It's just the attitude I'm condemning does not even bother to look for, let alone at, the positives.

The attitude is patronising, because in Britain, the people who can afford to choose to live like this are the middle class: they're rich enough to shop in Italian delis, and have the flexibility and resources to periodically do a half-decent impression of a stereotyped Italian family meal. When the writer of 'Dear Francesca' dismisses all processed food as awful, what I think she really means is: only poor people would eat this; we're better than them; don't. Now, when this attitude is part and parcel of the mores of what is supposedly the part of the left in Britain, I get worried.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hobbes on blogging, and how to prove him wrong

Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has a really good quote from Hobbes's De Cive, about the costs of allowing freedom of speech, which he thinks applies to blogging. Although given what I said in the previous post, it would be rather inconsistent of me to claim that Hobbes's view is the be all and end all of the matter, there is a tendency for discussions on some topics to reproduce the self-aggrandizing shouting past each other Hobbes apparently thought was typical of all free speech. What's interesting and perhaps slightly ironic about the post, given its ostensible subject, is the comments thread: a fine example of polite, considerate and considered responses, from which I hope, not entirely vainly I think, that something vaguely constructive has been learned by the participants. This is, of course, exactly what Hobbes is claiming is impossible, although he may have the last laugh: one of the reasons I'm linking to it is because I have been commenting on it, which fits in rather well with his reductionist psychology.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A Little Introduction

Right. Um. I seem to have acquired a blog. This is frighteningly easy so far: doubtless terrible things will happen later. I don't really have a mission statement, or anything like that: I just spend far too much of my time already looking at and commenting on other people's blogs, so the next logical step was to set up my own, so I could spend far too much of my time dealing with that instead. Just in case you were wondering, I'm currently a studying for a masters in Political Theory, which I will finish in June, so, understandably, some of my comments might be about politics. That said, I have been known to rant about just about anything once I get in the right frame of mind, so I could end up posting about just about anything. A more respectable reason for doing this than my inflated sense of the importance of my views is so that various people who know me can keep track of what on earth I am doing with myself, but that is just really a not particularly convincing cover for my megalomania. I haven't actually got any concrete plans for posts yet, but I'm sure that something somewhere will arouse my interest enough to encourage me to stick my grubby little paws in where they don't belong and write something on it fairly quickly.

On a more serious level, as a political theorist, despite having come to the blogosphere rather late, I think that it is a quite marvellous thing. Not only does it offer me the possibility of publishing material which people might voluntarily read, rather than cornering people in pubs, but it exposes those who use it - who might not be the people most in need of it - to all kinds of new information and opinions. Despite the snideness and insults, the possibility it holds out of dialogue has a huge potential for good. The exposure to genuine political discussion, rather than the mudslinging which characterizes so much of what passes as that elsewhere, ought to be a good thing: reasoned and reasonable discussions, and even arguments, if conducted in the right way, have the power to transform political debate and through that, political outcomes. Not that this only holds true of politics, of course: discussions about and information on all kinds of things happen in the blogosphere, and this is true of most of them. Although I have, as one would expect of someone studying political theory, quite strong views about politics, which will probably be fairly apparent fairly quickly, I hope that I am not a dogmatist, and willing, sometimes, to admit that I am wrong, so comments from any part of the political spectrum are welcome: if you think I'm wrong, say why, and I promise to at least think about it.

This isn't just going to be me muttering away to myself about the inquities of consumer capitalism, though. I'll be posting on more or less anything I feel like, including, but not restricted to, whatever I'm reading at the moment, bits and bobs of music, the terrible fate that is supporting Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, food, and perhaps even student life. Maybe other people will find what is inevitably going to be a disjointed collection of concerns interesting, maybe they won't: I'm going to pretend I don't care.