Friday, August 25, 2006

No More Meaning Than Is Revealed In The Finished Product

The Friday before last, Open Democracy published this rather good piece by Fred Halliday, which deplores the lack of what one provocatively might call Enlightenment-style analysis of recent conflicts in the Middle East, and, by extension, presumably further afield. Halliday invokes Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt as critics of both of the sides involved, pointing to Arendt's distaste at the Israeli derivation of the entitlement to try Eichmann from their Jewishness, rather than any simple universal principle of things human beings must not do to other human beings, and presenting Deutscher - whom Wikipedia informs me he has edited - as arguing that while both sides had legitimate claims, they were not the claims that they were making, and indeed the manner in which they were making those claims seemed almost designed to perpetuate the conflict. I've not read either Eichmann in Jerusalem or the NLR piece which Halliday extracts his claims about Deutscher from, although I can well believe that these are the kinds of things Arendt and Deutscher would have said from what I have read by them.

The substance of Halliday's criticism, as his use of Arendt suggests, is that both sides have departed from universalism: they have become immersed in the particularity of their own claims, and forgotten that they have other audiences to address. It's a bit like Bernard Williams' critique of relativism: it is now far too late for them to just be talking amongst themselves, for there is a problem to be solved, and short of committing various moral horrors, its solution requires the participation of another group which does not accept the consensus which structures their internal conversations. In this context, what Norm Geras says here and then here is interesting.

Geras is troubled by what we might call the perverse totalitarianism of liberalism: it demands that people tolerate each other, regardless of whether they want to or not. This, at least in the structure, particularly the universalism, of its moral claims, seems disturbingly similar to religious fundamentalism: you will do this, whatever your views on the matter. Now, liberals might just be prepared to bite the bullet, and say, effectively, we're right, you're wrong, and the universalism of our moral claims ought not to trouble us, because they're true. I'm not saying that view is wrong: there's a lot of mileage in pointing out that most illiberal political visions involve doing lots of things which are, by anything approximating a decent moral compass, pretty hideous. It is more that I think that there is something more to be said about the perverse totalitarianism of liberalism, something which, I hope at least, does away with the meta-ethical similarity.

Last weekend, I found out that I have got funding to do a DPhil at Oxford - you can go and crow now, David -which I'll be taking up. The problem I am intending to work is that of the relationship between the political and the ethical, how the question of how one should live individually bears on the question of how we should live together and, although perhaps to a lesser extent, vice versa. Crucial to that relationship is, clearly, the distinction between the public and the private. I feel quite strongly about the distinction between the public and the private: recently, for example, I found something like it useful in attempting to defend the refusal to think that anything particularly morally wrong, as distinguished from undesirable or regretable, happened to Inigo Wilson here, and in the past I've mobilised it as a critique of Blair's attempts at self-justification. It bears on concerns about the Government's anti-terrorism policy - the point about the 'just they say it, it don't make it so' critique of that policy, for example, is that it highlights its privacy, its inaccessibility to the public, both as a body of people and as a sphere of discourse, its lack of justification, its arbitrariness, even, at root, its unreasonedness - and - which is where Geras comes in - on the role of religion in public life.

One problem with the use of specifically religious claims for public justification is that they are quite literally incredible: no-one, other than religious people, believes them, or ought to, at least not because they are religious claims, and so no-one, other than religious people, has any good reason to acquiese to them. But, again that's not quite it. In a way, there's a comparison with one of Williams' many critiques of utilitarianism. Presumably, granting for the sake of argument that utilitarianism is true, Williams suggests, it could be the case that the best way to fulfill the commandment of creating the greatest happiness of the greatest number would be to erase from public consciousness all trace of that commandment, and allow some privileged elite of experts to control social life. There is something deeply perverse about that, even on its face - a moral theory which forbids its own promulgation is very strange - but the problem goes deeper than that.

The publicly affirmed rules by which people live their lives, as a matter of fact, have no purchase on their lives - they are systematically decieved about the point of their actions - and, as a direct corrolary of that, the rules which in fact do govern their lives are being kept from having any presence in those lives. Although practically it may be very difficult for the two difficulties to come apart, they are separate: someone doesn't have to be decieving you for you to be decieved - we are after all quite capable of that all by ourselves. What's wrong with this situation is that these people, these victims of what Williams called Government House Utilitarianism, are being denied agency, the chance to live their lives for themselves, to shape their own existences. They are subjects under the most perfectly paternalistic regime imaginable, and that is a hideous possibility.

Notice though that the consequence of that paternalism is the disappearance of the distinction between the public and the private, or, better, the disappearance of those categories totally. The public sphere under Government House utilitarianism is a sham: anything that those who live under it discuss operates totally differently from how they imagine it, and always will, and they have no ability to alter it anyway, because it is under someone else' control. Equally, their understanding of their valorisation of their fidelity to their spouse lacks any grasp on the real reason for that fidelity, and does so because someone else has sketched out a plan of their life, of how every detail of their existence will go: a panopticon that does not even need eyes. Now, clearly, religious or other dogmas don't go quite that far - no-one is deliberately decieved - but the control extends, perhaps not as far, but in the same way. Looking to a completed moral universe to guide political action destroys, by destroying the possibility of either a public or a private sphere, political action itself: what is left to ask about how to live together when we all live the same way anyway?

It is to this distinction that liberals uncomfortable with its meta-ethical tyranny, as I assume Geras is, need to appeal. Liberalism's universalism, unlike that of some of its opponents, is both public and private: it does not demand that the possibilty of human agency is absolutely constrained by a single text or moral principle, merely by some fairly minimal moral commitments, and so allows everyone to go to hell in their own ways whilst retaining enough shared ground to make mutual comprehension possible. In contrast, like utilitarianism, religious fundamentalism demands total conformity to a rigid set of moral diktats, and would thus, if perfectly implemented, destroy the idea of privacy, of a space in which you are not under the gaze of others, and of publicity, of a space where differences can be reconciled or at least ignored, because when everyone does the same thing all the time, there is only one, and so no others to be under the gaze of or differences to reconcile. Indeed, one might press the point against liberalism's more totalitarian foes that their universalism is a charade, that universalism, to make any sense, needs to address the universe, needs to take into account the fact of plurality, of a world inhabited by distinct agents. Understanding Halliday's anti-particularism in this sense might not go too far wrong.


Pearsall Helms said...

I found out that I have got funding to do a DPhil at Oxford

Well, asides from anything else, congratulations! Well done, sir!

Cirdan said...

Rob, that's a nice, rich post; I'd love to take issue with what you say about the sorta, kinda, implicit totalitarianism of religious meta-ethics. For now, however, congratulations!

Rob Jubb said...

Thanks! And take issue with it if you want Cirdan

Ben said...

I'm not sure about all you say about utilitarianism.

You say it implies one's loyalty to one's partner may be for the wrong reasons. That may be so on a strict hedonist account, but couldn't a more moderate utilitarianism claim only to be an account of what is good and not why it's good - and thus be able to identify fidelity as good without threatening your reasons for it?

Secondly, I'm not sure the public life is threatened by Government House Utilitarianism. Decisions could still be put to the vote, and those in government might then implement the chosen policy because people voted for it, rather than because of the reasons that people voted for it (which I guess is like the previous contrast), but there still seems a workable public/private distinction.

(And if there isn't, I'd say it's because utilitarianism claims to regulate both, rather than because of any Government House aspect)

Finally, utilitarianism may not be the only moral theory that forbids its promulgation. Quite plausibly one shouldn't go around spreading the idea we can do whatever we can universalise, because a lot of people simply wouldn't be able to operate by Kant's categorical imperative. The problem seems to be about decision procedures: an ethical account of what is right need not favour a direct decision procedure.


Rob Jubb said...


I'm not sure about the plausibility of what you describe as a more moderate form of utilitarianism. Imagine I claimed that shoelaces were good and flipflops bad, and that these were the only things that were good and bad. This is surely logically equivalent with the utilitarian claim that pleasure is good and pain is bad, and nothing else has either of these properties. Imagine further that I said there was nothing more to be said about the goodness of shoelaces and the badness of flipflops, beyond stating that they were respectively good and bad. I wouldn't be very convincing on my shoelaces and flipflops theory. Neither, absent the features we feel justify the claims that pleasure is good and pain is bad of pleasure and pain, would a utilitarian.

I think you may have misunderstood the idea of Government House Utilitarianism. It's not like you hide the truth of utilitarianism, wind society up and let it go, only intervening to ensure that no-one ever finds out utilitarianism is true. Because you have a perfect duty to maximise happiness, you would be constantly interfering: the idea that a society under Government House utilitarianism could vote on something, and that vote be in any sense an autonomous or meaningful decision on anything at all is laughable. And of course the point is that utilitarianism itself recognises no public-private distinction: an example is needed to force that thought, though, which Government House utilitarianism is supposed to do.

I agree with you about other ethical theories not being able to promulgate themselves: I suppose the Kantian retort to your example might be that it's hard to universalise a principle which systematically involves lying to some group of people, but I'm not sure how convincing I find that. The thing you say about ethical truth and decision procedures coming apart is interesting though: if ethics is practical, a satisfactory ethical theory should perhaps have an eye for its own implementation, in which case, any decision procedures associated with it ought to be practical. To put it more strongly, if ethics is supposed to tell us how to act, when confronted with a problem, people better be able to use it to work out how to act.

Ben said...

#1 The possible utilitarianism I had in mind was one that claimed only happy-making things are good, without necessarily saying happiness-making is what makes them good (or sufficient for them being good). If someone could hold such a theory, they could I think rebut your point about not knowing the reasons for fidelity. However, it is questionable whether the position is sufficiently 'utilitarian'.

#2 I'm not sure I've read Williams on GHU - and if I have it was looooong ago. I was assuming it was something like Sidgwick's 'this may be true, but perhaps we shouldn't tell the masses', which I guess is still compatible with a good deal of liberalism (as in J S Mill)

Re-reading your post and comment makes it sound very much like Plato's Republic; but even paternalism need not be totalitarian and so need not obviously invade some kind of private sphere. There's a big difference between regulating what Jack does in the public forum and what he does in his own home - and utilitarians (of the GHU variety) could, I assume, recognise this, not just for Millian reasons (each best knows/promotes his own good), but also by appeal to costs of enforcement and setting of public examples.

#3 I see why Rawls takes publicity as a necessary feature; however, if one believes ethical matters to be (independently) true or false, there's no warrant for assuming the true theory must be one that can or should be spread in public.

Rob Jubb said...


on #1, it'd be a remarkably perverse ethical theory that didn't take something making someone happy as at least a prima facie reason for it being good, which is I think all that the 'happiness-producing things are generally good, but perhaps not a sufficient condition for something good' position you seem to be advocating says, and it's certainly not enough to make anyone a utilitarian.

On #2, I suppose the thing to be born(e?) in mind is that the utilitarian has no principled reason for not being a totalitarian: there's nothing they can invoke the loss of against totalitarianism, if that's how the felific calculus ends up coming out. Neither I nor, I suspect, any utilitarian has or even could ever actually do the sums involved in using the felific calculus, so maybe there's a sense in which it's a non-issue that they could come out this way. But maybe not.

On #3, well, Rawls isn't an ethicist - which is of course precisely the point. But I agree that if you held that there was some ethical truth independent of human interests, then there would be no warrant for assuming that that truth should be widely known. The question would then arise, though, if the ethical truth in question was independent of human interests, what interest would humans have in it?

Ben said...

On #1 agreed the position I'm thinking of may well be consequentialist rather than utilitarian; but it's one that says fidelity leads to happiness and should be promoted, but the leading to happiness isn't necessarily why it should be promoted. Maybe I'm trying to do what Mill did, when he insisted virtue was good in itself by being part of (rather than means to) happiness, and maybe it's inconsistent.

#2 Agreed there's no principled reason (it's like the slavery case). But is the public-private distinction any less a distinction because it's not principled? Provided I am in fact left alone, should I care that it is - logically, but not in fact - possible that the utilitarian calculus could mandate totalitarianism?

#3 Sometimes Rawls seems to be an ethicist, sometimes not. Perhaps his political project conflicts with ethical demands, in which case I suppose he'd have to appeal to lack of agreement on comprehensive goods, etc to say we should stick to the political.