Thursday, October 26, 2006

Becoming Moribund

Although I realise I've just falsified it by posting not once but twice, I feel I should warn readers - after all, there are so few of you I feel I have a genuinely personal bond - that being a graduate student seems to be eating rather more of my time than I remember it doing. I haven't read any other blogs in about a week or so, and I'm not sure when I am next going to get time to, so the chances of me having time to write anything here are clearly tiny. It was nice knowing you all; I hope to be back, eventually.

Logicians, Mock Me!

Any (complete) moral theory that denies the value of truth, however convincing it is otherwise, must be at least question-begging and possibly false. Think of it this way: I claim that the only thing which is valuable is pleasure. That means truth isn't valuable, so, even if it is true that pleasure is the only thing which is valuable, internally, it is left mysterious why it matters that pleasure is the only thing which is valuable: I don't care about truth, so why should I care that it is true that pleasure is the only thing which is valuable? Couldn't someone just respond, since truth isn't valuable, I have no reason which follows simply from something being true to adjust my beliefs to the truth, and if I have no reason of that kind to adjust my beliefs to the truth, then I am given no additional reason to adjust my moral beliefs to the dictates of some moral theory by someone showing me that that moral theory is true. I've tried to formalise this below, but rather suspect that I have buggered it up.

a) the value of truth is the only explanation of why our beliefs ought to track the truth for its own sake

b) therefore, in the absence of the value of truth, there is no explanation of why our beliefs ought to track the truth for its own sake

c) therefore, in the absence of the value of truth, explanations of why our beliefs ought to track the truth must be for reasons other than for the sake of truth

d) such explanations of why our beliefs ought to track the truth will appeal to values other than truth

e) generally, an explanation of why a given x ought to y in terms of a value fails unless that value is a true value

f) therefore by d) and e), in the absence of the value of truth, there is no explanation of why our beliefs ought to track the truth

g) generally, if there is no explanation of why a given x ought to y, then we ought to conclude that x ought to y is false

h) therefore by f) and g), in the absence of the value of truth, it is false that our beliefs ought to track the truth

i) therefore, in the absence of the value of truth, it is irrelevant for our beliefs whether something is true or not

j) therefore, in the absence of the value of truth, it is irrelevant for our moral beliefs whether some moral theory is true or not.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Hopefully Interesting Question

Related to this, I wonder, how much error, in terms of existing first-order moral principles, do people think is acceptable for a moral theory to generate?

I'm Asking You To Tell Me To Stop Doing It

I don't find class hatred, in the abstract, hard. I find its moral critique, as a series of necessarily individualp-smudging generalisations, reasonably accurate: the effortless self-possession of the upper classes, the blithe arrogance, the endless sense of entitlement, the privilege that does not even know itself, let alone its absence, is repugnant. This, for example, drips with precisely the kind of contempt that I have for them: I hated 'Brideshead Revisited' when it was repeated sometime in the mid nineties, not for any particular technical failings, but because of the kind of life it portrayed, the idle whimsy striving for elevation to some cod-Nietzschean oh-so-troubled nihilism, blind to the genuine tragedies of the world it glided through. Even 'Wilde' began to provoke the same kinds of sentiments, and 'Jeeves and Wooster' struggled in the same kind of way.

I think the thing that really gets to me, the thing that I can't forgive, is, ironically given that I am writing this to be read by anyone with an internet connection, their braying: there's no sense that there's a public made up of people most of whom aren't like them, who don't share their in their exceptionally good fortune. There's a carelessness to them, in the literal sense of the term, a depthless and endless patronising. Other people only exist as mirrors to them, things to faithfully reflect back to them their ineffable greatness. Like I say, I don't find class hatred hard. For me, it's just as Justin puts it:

[That he is a football man] is the only thing I'll say for him. Other than that he must be one of the most arrogant and self-centred men I've ever met. If he told me the date, I'd check the calendar: if he told me my name I'd check my birth certificate. If he told me he was interested in anybody other than himself I'd laugh out loud.

I've found some Americans to be similar, but then, I've mentioned before the scene in 'The Straight Story' which is a kind of paean to restraint. Two elderly American men, both of whom fought in World War II, sit in a bar in the middle of the day, very slowly drinking a single beer, discussing - except without discussing - how some of their comrades drank too much when they came back. As I remember it, it is a single, quite long, very still, shot. One of them says to the other, 'a lot of them men who came back drank a lot' - or something like that, similarly emptily factual - and that's it. It's done: basta. It's perfect. There's none of the poverella, publicly distraught, all show, totally externalised and so totally hollowed-out, just a minimal acknowledgement, a mutual, self-aware, understanding. Everything is said without being said, and so the costs of it being said don't have to be borne. Equally, I've mentioned before my mother's relative who died almost a year ago now: a man who "had a near-perfect sense of... exactly why you shouldn't be standing on a bed, paralytically drunk, throwing stumbling face-high kicks at imaginary enemies".

Nothing is totally without its costs though. The point is that sense of restraint, that sense of what you're doing to people when you do things in front of them, has its costs, just like anything else. Either you don't say what you feel should be said, or you train yourself to feel that nothing that you're not happy saying to the relevant public should be said. Growing resentment and eventual, inevitably unreasonable, outburst or quiescence, a withdrawn conformity. Most often perhaps some strained combination of the two. Even the arrogance of this makes me uneasy, the presumption that anyone else cares, that they should care. All I really wanted to say was that there have been some things I have put here that I'm sorry I did, the products of those eventual outbursts. They're too personal, too vindictive, not properly matters of public concern, not made general, not made universal enough. This, and this, for example. For a theorist of public reason, I think I could do better. They made the personal into the political, drew the particular far too far into the general. Apologies to those who they were really addressed to.

You Have To Go On Living Afterwards, Or, Some Complaints Against Left-Libertarianism

An inescapable leitmotif of this blog is, I both suspect and hope, the need to take seriously the complexity and variety of moral discourse. Like one of my intellectual heroes, the ones I really hate are the reductionists. They do lack imagination, since, after all, the whole point of being a reductionist is to reduce the number of things that can be said about something, to deprive our language of particular ways of describing things, to squeeze everything into ideally only one concept. I think that left-libertarianism is a kind of reductionism, at least to some degree and as I understand it.

Consider, for example, the case for a basic income, which I think more or less forms the centrepiece of a left-libertarian theory of distributive justice. The idea is that citizens of a state ought all to be provided with a yearly or perhaps monthly grant of enough money to allow them to live a basically decent, although by no means luxurious, life, paid for usually out of a tax on land values. Although there are a variety of ways of justifying such a distributive theory, the common core to them all is that this satisfies the Lockean 'enough and as good' proviso: any disadvantage anyone suffered as a result of property being appropriated by a particular individual, and hence taken out of the commons, where all could benefit from it, is eliminated. A life can be led without relying on the demand others have for your labour, and so you are free. In the terms a left-libertarian friend of mine used to build his theory, it gives you the freedom to say no.

I am skeptical about a basic income exhausting our duties of distributive justice, both in terms of direct redistribution of income and wealth, and in terms of indirect redistribution of such goods through provision of other goods and services. I am skeptical about it exhausting our duties of direct redistribution for two reasons. Firstly, because it suffers from the difficulty that Paula Casal has identified with theories of distributive justice which focus on providing enough, which commonly get called sufficientarian. The problem which both a basic income and a sufficientarian theory of distributive justice have is that any amount of income and wealth that is named as satisfying the requirements of justice will either be too much or not enough. Casal describes the problem with a low threshold of need in a sufficientarian theory of justice like this:

the lower the threshold, the easier it is to understand the urgency of passing it, but the harder it is to explain the sufficientarian indifference between benefiting millionaires rather than people who are just above the threshold

This to me seems an obviously directly transferable critique of basic income theory. I could understand, for example, why a theory of justice might demand that everyone had enough money to pay their rent and eat frugally, but would find it very difficult to understand why it was not prepared to redistribute any further, especially if there were members of the society in question who were vastly more wealthy than that. Her criticism of a threshold which is too high requires somewhat more translation:

The higher the threshold, the easier it is to understand why sufficientarians do not see any reason to benefit individuals who are above it but the harder it is to understand their indifference to benefiting those who are far below rather than just below the threshold

Rather than the problem being the achievement of a threshold, as it is with sufficientarianism - whose argument against egalitarianism rests in part on the relative desirability of the differential distribution of goods when there are not enough to be useful to all of those who could benefit from them - the problem for a left-libertarian basic income is, I think, to explain how a relatively high basic income is about freedom. Once you are talking about the freedom to go for lengthy skiing holidays, I'm not sure I'm that bothered any more.

Sufficientarianism at least has something of a get-out from this problem, in that it can propose a variety of standards of need. It can propose a threshold for bare survival, for a minimal satisfactory life, for an adequate amount of self-respect and so on. This allows it, for example, to differentiate between different types of need, which make demands of different levels of seriousness on us, so that our obligation to ensure that people do not starve to death is recognised, as it surely is, as being much more demanding than our obligation to allow them the opportunity for regular and meaningful leisure time, or, say, a decent standard of secondary education. It can also differentiate between the different needs of different people, so that, for example, an able-bodied young man is not seen as requiring the same resources as a young mother with a disability, or within the same life at different times, so that someone when healthy has different needs from when ill. None of this is open to a theory which claims that a basic income guarantee exhausts our obligations as a matter of distributive justice, because it does not differentiate between different circumstances.

But this is, I think, just part of a wider problem with left-libertarianism. Because its theory of justice begins and ends with freedoms associated with property rights, left-libertarians tend to hold at least the weaker, but often the stronger, of these two propositions:

1. As long as some act is understood as uncoerced, in the sense that people do it freely against a background of compensation for the loss of their property rights in the commons, there is nothing else for the state to concern itself with.

2. As long as some act is understood as uncoerced, in the sense that people do it freely against a background of compensation for the loss of their property rights in the commons, there is nothing else for anyone else to concern themselves with.

This elevation of voluntarism to either the sole principle of state action or, even more radically, the sole principle of moral action tout court, is not only bizarre, but strangely self-defeating, I think. It is bizarre because there are clearly voluntary agreements in which no-one else's property rights are harmed which are, at the very least, a matter of concern to others, and quite possibly a matter of concern for the state. Whatever Chris Woodward may or may not have said, I think that most people regard it as a matter of public concern that students, even adult students, do not sleep with their teachers. A left-libertarian though, ought to have no problem with students being paid to sleep with their teachers, which I think you would have to be seriously deranged to think was not at all troubling.

It is self-defeating though, because it denies the existence, in denying the existence of legitimate moral concerns beyond those associated with a lack of coercion, of the very features of the moral world which permit the existence of coercion in the first place. The reason, for example, you can be coerced when starving into working is that starvation is a terrible thing to suffer. The reason coercion is effective is that it threatens something valuable, like the experience of not being starving. If, as the elevation of voluntarism to the position of sole moral principle suggests, there is nothing bad except being coerced, it is hard to see how coercion occurs at all. What, after all, is so terrible about starvation, or not getting medical treatment, or not being able to provide your children with a decent education, and if none of these things are so terrible, how can you be threatened with them?