Sunday, January 28, 2007

If It's Not Going To Disolve That, Then It's Not Going To Disolve That Either

Facebook, being American, thinks the political spectrum runs from Liberal to Conservative, with Libertarians as a strange outlier. Now I've written before about how to conceptualise the political spectrum, and I don't think Facebook's attempt is, at least in comparison with mine, particularly satisfactory. Still, though, what with my embeddedness in post-Rawlsian left-liberal political theory, you'd think I'd be happy enough to call myself a Liberal. After all, quite apart from my philosophico-theoretical predilections, I am all for things like tolerance, civil liberties, and even, on occasion, the dread political correctness. I ought to be happy to call myself a Liberal. I'm not though, and I think I'm not for vaguely philosophical respectable and even interesting reasons, a description of which I am now going to inflict on those unwise enough to continue reading.

I wrote relatively recently about my enjoyment of Alan Bennett's most recent set of memoirs and writings, praising him in particular for sympathetic evocation of his parent's sense of restraint, of the harms that can be inflicted by showiness. I also wrote recently about the Rawlsian idea of the priority of the right, although in a less respectable context. These are the reasons I am reluctant to call myself a liberal: both Bennett's description of the moral ideas motivating his parents and the Rawlsian idea of the priority of the right, which are I think significantly linked, to my mind tell against describing one's self as a liberal. Now, there are plenty on the left - which, in conventional terms, is clearly where I am - who are not just reluctant to describe themselves as liberals, but eager. However, they are generally seeking to distance themselves from a political and philosophical tradition they see as insufficiently radical, as too wedded to norms of bourgeois individualism, of the (male) agent in the marketplace. Crucially, they think of liberalism as a tradition which is unable to deliver justice - or rather a utopia beyond justice - for those (patriarchal) capitalism does not take proper account of. Their complaint is about liberal theories of justice: they just don't think they're very good theories.

This is not quite my complaint. I'm actually quite fond of liberal theories of justice. Show me a society which guarantees the equal worth of the basic liberties, has fair equality of opportunity and is arranging its basic structure of social, economic and legal institutions so that they are to the absolute advantage of the least well-off group in that society, and we'll have seen a society substantially juster than any state in the world now. There is something that those who think of the liberal archetype as Popper or Hayek - and not in a good way - get right, or at least partly right, though. Their critique could be read as pointing to ways in which a wide sphere of free action can leave people entitled to behave quite abominably to each other: the sense in which even a liberal - in both the medieval and modern senses of the term - welfare state does not prevent outbreaks of, say, class prejudice, racism and sexism. The two things that they get wrong, I think, are the questions of, first, exactly how wide the sphere of free action is under a liberal theory of justice, and so how much this really would happen in a society governed by one, and, second, of whether this is always and everywhere question about (social) justice.

A detour into my favourite whippinh boy, utilitarianism, is I think worthwhile here. A longstanding criticism of utilitarianism is that objectionable sources of happiness count when considering what to do in order to maximise the general happiness. For example, if racists would be made happy by being able to lynch those they were racist against, then that counts in favour of them being able to go a-lynching. Utilitarians can and will argue till they are blue in the face that, as a matter of empirical fact, satisfying such preferences would never maximize the general happiness. Even if that is true, which I am not sure it is, the simple fact that a racist's racism is allowed to count in favour of them being able to engage in widespread violations of seriously fundamental rights seems to tell against utilitarianism. What utilitarianism lacks, we might say, is the idea of the priority of the right: for all that utilitarianism has at its core a conception of equality - that everyone's pleasures and pains are to count equally - there's no sense that the sources of our pleasures or pains ought to have any moral content to them, ought to align themselves with that thought about equality. The racist has decided that to consider the pleasures and pains of the group they are racist towards in precisely the opposite way from the moral theory which, if utilitarianism is true, ought to govern their choices, and yet that theory treats their preferences just as it does those of their potential victims.

Alan Bennett's parent's restraint seems, to my mind, to be motivated by something similar. No-one could think that being unafraid to put yourself forward was an injustice, but it does speak of an attitude towards others that is close to some attitudes typical of injustices. That is not to say it is not in some sense bad - in many cases, it is rude, and rudeness is bad - or that its badness is explained under some general prohibition against attitudes which in other circumstances lead to injustices - again, when it is bad, it is bad because it is rude, and not derivatively of some other concern. The thought with Bennett's parents seems to be that you should leave other people be, not bother them. The weird thing about this, of course, is that there is an important sense in which this is a liberal idea: that people ought to be autonomous, independent, decide on their reasons for themselves. But liberalism, philosophically at least, finds it quite difficult to endorse the idea that people ought to behave like this: crudely, the harm principle as typically read tells you nothing about your personal conduct except that you ought not to stop people doing something unless they are about to harm someone else, and so it cannot tell anyone to leave anyone else be, unless they are actually going to harm them.

John Rawls, of course, realized this, which is why the doctrine of the priority of the right disappears in his later major work, Political Liberalism: requiring that citizens of a just state would tend to have conceptions of what it was worthwhile for them to do which aligned with the rest of his theory of justice was too much like telling them how to live their lives. Now, I may be extremely reluctant to tell people how to live their lives - at least in a sense involving coercion: mere advice may be forthcoming, although not necessarily useful - but I am quite happy with the thought that there are better and worse ways to live a life, and that many of those can be articulated using the resources of a theory of justice, so in a certain sense, I affirm the priority of the right. Insofar as liberals are unhappy with the priority of the right, I am unhappy with being a liberal. For all my affirmation of a liberal theory of justice, I want that theory to be integrated with a theory of the good, and because liberals are reluctant to do that, I am reluctant to call myself a liberal. The title, in case anyone is wondering and doesn't get it, is another Kant reference: I have been infected, I think.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Before MOTD, A Quick Dose, Or, If You Think About It, You Can See I've Been Reading Kant

Via Cirdan, I see this, an argument against inclusion from the value of difference. Since the author is an unashamed Tory, and therefore all in favour of hierarchy and so on, I tend to think something has gone seriously wrong here. Thinking about it briefly, my identification of what has gone wrong - none of which implies either that an argument of this form could not be made, or that Cirdan is incorrect to claim that this particular form of it does not work - is that the author has not thought properly about the conditions under which difference can be sustained. To allow all associations to set whatever criteria for membership they choose is to allow all associations to exclude whomever they want. To allow all associations to exclude whomever they want is to allow associations to make arbitrary choices about who gets to share in the benefits of those associations. The benefits of some associations - where that should be understood as indeterminate over which associations are included in the set of such associations - are important, if not necessary, for a minimally decent life: membership of a state, for example, for the vast majority of people in the world as it is. A minimally decent life is a necessary condition of the exercise of full human agency - understood as distinct from other forms of human agency, necessary for the bare sustenance of life at all, like finding enough to eat. The existence and value of difference is a result of the exercise of full human agency. Ergo, there are some associations which it is important to have access to in order for difference to exist and be valuable. Excluding people from such associations would therefore destroy difference as a valuable category in the world, at least in the lives of those excluded. Allowing the membership of such associations to be decided on arbitrary bases would exclude some people from them. Exactly which associations fall into the category of those whose benefits are important, if not necessary, for a minimally decent life is left indeterminate by this argument: however, it is at least an open question whether in a given context an association might be or not. To make the argument in its Kantian sense, the question is how arbitrary can difference by before it destroys itself? How does the universal solvent avoid dissolving itself? Can reason articulate its own limits?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ordinary Language Philosophy?

At the moment, I am reading Kant - specifically, the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals - for the first time. Now, whether or not I ought to have read Kant before and what exactly I think of Kant are questions which will have to wait. Much more important to get across here is that Kant... well, a sample of text says it so much better than I could:

This will may therefore not be the single and entire good, but it must be the highest good, and the condition for all the rest, even for the demand for happiness, in which case it can be united with the wisdom of nature, when one perceives that the culture of reason, which is required for the former, limits in many way the attainment of the second aim, which is always conditioned, namely of happiness, at least in this life, and can even diminish it to less than nothing without nature's proceeding unpurposively in this; for reason, which recognizes its highest practical vocation in the grounding of a good will, is capable in attaining this aim only of a contentment after its own kind, namely from the fulfillment of an end that again only reason determines, even if this should also be bound up with infringement of the ends of inclination.

The translation I'm reading claims that it deliberately left many of the awkwardnesses that other translations take out in, since that's what Kant's really like. Still, WTF? Whatever the thought is here, surely there is a way of expressing it that isn't quite so hideous.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Shortcoming They Thought Of As An Affliction Whilst Enshrining It As A Virtue

I've been to Barcelona twice in my life, once when I must have been nine or ten with my parents and sister, and once, six and a half years ago, whilst inter-railing before going to university with two friends. One of them, rather philistinely I thought, refused to pay the couple of hundred pesetas to go up one of the towers of the Sagrada Familia, and sat on a bench outside whilst the other friend and I trooped obediently up the spiral staircases along with hundreds of other tourists, peering out through windows I remember as rather small at the unfinished facade. We were rather disorganised, and didn't see any other Gaudi, so perhaps the rest of it is less ostentatious, less overloaded with excess, but I felt rather beaten into submission by the Sagrada Familia, almost resentfully impressed. We did all go into another church in Barcelona, the Santa Maria del Mar: it must have been free. I much preferred the thirteenth century Santa Maria del Mar, and particularly the interior: restrained and perfect in that restraint, graceful enough to avoid severity and to draw, capture, and hold the eye, the columns a kind of suspension of disbelief, inviting the gaze upwards, towards the light.

I have just started reading Alan Bennett's most recent collection. I like Bennett a lot. There's a humane moral seriousness to him, an awareness of people's vulnerabilities, of how things become indignities and how hurtful an indignity can be, all done lightly enough to not give too much weight to the foolishness of some of those vulnerabilities, the focus falling rather on the vulnerability itself. He also writes well, in an unobtrusive, observant way. The piece which gives the collection its title focuses on his parents and aunts, towards the ends of their lives. It is very Bennett-ish, sympathetic, its most caustic tone a kind of gentle mocking, its explorations quite careful to avoid becoming exposures, mirroring, in his description at least, the character of his lower middle class parents. He writes very movingly of their shyness, a reluctance to put themselves forward, something they thought of as obligatory, despite - or perhaps because of - the disadvantages they thought flowed from it. It is hard not to have a great deal of sympathy with that thought. It is what is wrong with the Sagrada Familia, and quite so wonderful about the Santa Maria Del Mar, the willingness to step back and let people be, not to impose, to trust that others are good-willed enough to search for and find things to admire, although of course it helps that the Santa Maria Del Mar is beautiful.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Convenient Stick To Beat Them With

Corey Robin has a piece in the newest LRB about Hannah Arendt, and particularly The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. The argument is that Arendt has been persistently been widely misunderstood, and had the unconvincing and fuzzy psychologising of her writing on totalitarianism taken as overly central. I confess I've not read either On The Origins of Totalitarianism or Eichmann in Jerusalem, but only The Human Condition, so it may well be that Robin is right about Arendt's views as expressed in the two books I haven't read. If her views in The Human Condition are representative, and the secondary literature I've read gives me reason to think so, though, then Robin is guilty of as serious a misreading of Arendt himself, and one which rather undermines the argument of the piece.

Robin argues that Eichmann in Arendt's eyes was not a faceless bureaucrat, blindly following rules, shuffling his victims into the gas chambers as though they were papers being moved from one tray to another, but a man consumed by ambition, the drive to succeed. It was this motivation, the appeal of social status, rather than what we might in Weberian terms call the iron cage of rationality, which allowed Eichmann to slaughter hundreds of thousands, Robin claims is central to Arendt's account. This, though, looks strange to me: it looks like an odd distinction for Arendt to cleave to and particularly to moralise in the way that Robin claims.

Arendt placed a great deal of importance of human agency, the possibility of freedom in an agonistic political realm, the history of the decline of which she traced in The Human Condition. She claimed it had been overtaken by various more functionalist aspects of human life, the reproduction of human life and the reproduction of the human world of objects respectively, and thus all the normative possibility was draining out of the world. Ambition, which drives people on to the kinds of great deeds which are characteristic of the agonistic political realm Arendt so esteemed, could hardly be a serious character flaw, if steered towards its proper place, whilst the rule of faceless bureaucrats, who apply the norms of reproduction of various sorts to what is properly unconstrained, is an intrinsic part of the narrative of loss she wishes to construct.

It would seem to me that it is for Arendt precisely because Eichmann was a faceless bureaucrat that his ambition was so dangerous, if indeed it was his ambition that made him dangerous at all. It was because he was a faceless bureaucrat, steeped in norms appropriate for a sphere of quasi-biological reproduction - the endless cycle of birth and death - that he was unable to see the moral horror of what he was doing: an unambituous man, a man merely concerned to avoid trouble with his superiors, to seek the approval of his family, driven by any motive that made it easier for him to bury himself in his work, could have done what Eichmann did, because, for Arendt, the point about what Eichmann did is that it ignores the proper status of those he sent to the gas chambers. The reason Eichmann was able to ignore that status was because of the increasing degree to which norms of quasi-biological reproduction had reached beyond their proper place, and subverted the practices of the public sphere. Whether or not he did it out of ambition is irrelevant: what matters is that he couldn't see he was doing something wrong, and that was not something that ambition, at least in the parts of Arendt's typology I'm familiar with, could do.

I also get the impression that Robin's discussion of Arendt's anti-Zionism is mistaken. This is primarily because what motivates Arendt's anti-Zionism so far as I am aware is a worry about nationalism more generally, which, quite apart from the crimes it commits, tends to, by requiring them to adhere to certain norms, deny the citizens of the states it rules their proper freedom. The same sort of denial of status occurs: individuals are subordinated to some norm which does not allow them as unpredictably, as wilfully, as they ought to be able to. Equally, the fuzzy psychologising of Arendt's account of totalitarianism seems to make more sense: the subsumption into a mass which apparently accompanies it is to be seen as part and parcel of the disappearance of a privileged public sphere and its replacement by an exaltation of the baser aspects of the human condition. More interestingly though, one wonders what, consistently applied, Robin's dislike of ambition would say about the article and his use of Arendt in it: is distorting an author in order to use them as a stick to beat some fairly unpopular - at least amongst the relevant audience - enemies the kind of thing that gets motivated by ambition? Surely not.

Monday, January 01, 2007

F*cking With Kant

I have been thinking about sex more than is perhaps healthy recently. Longer-term readers - I wonder whether there is any other kind - will presumably be able to guess why, although not all my thinking has been of the one-handed kind. Some of my thinking has been second-order, thinking not about sex but about our thinking about sex, about the normative structures in which our sexual activity takes place, in which it makes sense, seems and is appealing. Some of this is doubtless an attempt at rationalising or vindicating some of the less attractive consequences of thinking about sex more than is perhaps healthy. So be it. Some of it, though, I think, is more substantive, less transparently self-interested, than that.

Although it is neither of the two literatures concerned are ones I know an enormous amount about, the relationship between the traditionally feminist critique of women's objectification in pornography and the Kantian requirement that other rational agents are treated never only as means but always also as ends seems like it would be interesting: the standard which is being invoked by criticising the depiction of women in pornography as objectifying seems to be circling around the idea that others should not be treated as tools, mere instruments for one's own satisfaction. The idea, insofar as I grasp it, is that pornography and erotica depicts women as the passive subjects of sexual desire, literally ripe for use by male power for its gain, which certainly does have a Kantian tone to it. Presumably, the standard is supposed to hold across sexual conduct: not generally in an enforcable manner, but presumably in the marital bedroom as much as in the sorts of shops men leave in large, concealing coats with brown paper bags under their arms.

The constraint, of course, on the requirements which such a standard for sexual conduct might impose is that sexual activity is hardly an epitome of the realisation of our fully rational natures. Indeed, given Kant's suspicion about the contingent, messy world of desire, imposing strict Kantian requirements on an activity which can hardly remove itself from that world might seem a little perverse - although, perhaps, for some quite enjoyable, precisely because of that strictness. Which is exactly the difficulty: there's something subversive about sex, about the way it co-opts and plays with, twists even, normal moral experience. It seems to rely, sometimes, on provocatively thumbing its nose at the usual rules, on the thrill of transgression. To put it more bluntly, whilst there may be f*cking in the Kingdom of Ends, f*cking does not seem to have to be about the sort of mutual respect which is traditionally thought to characterise the Kingdom of Ends.

Part of the problem with a stringent objectification requirement on sexual conduct seems to be that objectification is only something which can be done to a subject. No-one objectifies chairs or lumps of coal: they are already objects, and so there is nothing noteworthy about treating them as objects. There is a certain sense, then, in which objectification contains the means to counter itself, an admission of its own inaccuracy. This has a degree of pleasing dialectical serendipity, but more than that, I think it indicates ways in which objectification can avoid being morally troubling.

Obviously, the bare fact that something can only be done to a subject does not mean that it shows the proper respect to the subject to whom it is done: it is only in virtue of features of a person or an animal's subjectivity that they can be tortured, but that surely does not mean that torture shows proper respect to that subjectivity. The point about sexual objectification, though, seems to be that submission to the undeniably sometimes base demands of sexual desire, including, I guess, the base demands of someone else's sexual desire, is something that a subject can willingly cooperate in, and does not seem to have be either pitied or condemned for doing so. In some cases, respecting the personhood of others would appear to mean respecting their choice to temporarily renounce certain aspects of it. Respect here, of course, does not necessarily mean mere toleration: although respect may be grudging, certainly, it is clearly possible to tolerate something without respecting it.

This is not to deny the force of the objectification critique, I think. Much pornography is brutal and nasty, seeming to glory in the exercise of unmediated, casual power and little else, and it presumably does reflect, as many feminists claim, the normative effect of centuries of accumulated patriarchal oppression. Admitting that there may be situations in which stripping away some of the trappings of normal human agency is permissible and even valuable, is not saying that every such denial of subjectivity is permissible: recall the point about torture above. It is rather to draw attention to ways in which moral theory needs to be self-reflective, ways in which it must itself be subject to its own commandments, as well as to the way in which Kantianism can become rather formalistic. This latter point is I think more central. We need to remember not only that we need to apply the principle of toleration to philosophy itself, in Rawls' memorable phrase, but also that we are physically embodied entities, with brute physical needs and desires, who thus ought to be treated in ways which acknowledge that.

Consider tickling. I love both tickling and being tickled, yet there are only certain circumstances in which either is appropriate. Children, pets and lovers may tickle or be tickled, and I think that is pretty much it. The moral standing of the relationships involved in those three cases is presumably illustrative: those relationships are not like those we have with typical human adults but rather do not, either through a lack or a transcendence, construct from the Kantian ideal of autonomous agent the boundaries which are normally prescriptive for our interactions with others.

The lack, in the case of children or pets, is that of the kinds of capacities which seem to be necessary to acheive the status of an autonomous agent, at least in the Kantian sense, just as the the transcendence is, in the case of lovers. Features other than the capacity to form and pursue rational plans of life become morally relevant: rather than focusing on ensuring that people have the space and resources, both physical and social, to construct and carry out their projects, the physicality, the tactility of being a thing in the world which reacts in certain ways to certain stimuli becomes paramount. Think of a cat stretching its head up, beatific, to be tickled under its chin. That is, albeit in a cat, a kind of glorying in brute, though gentle, physicality, in being little more than a series of responses to stimuli, and one which is presumably totally morally untroubling. Some human submission to desire can surely be like that, and more than that, some human submission to sexual desire can surely be like that.

There is an awkwardness in talking about sex, and given the way in which it involves conceptualising others in ways which would be wholly inappropriate for the public sphere, that is understandable. I do not want to know very much, if anything, about the sexual proclivities, exactly how to flick exactly which switch, of your partner: that knowledge would be an intrusion into a relationship structured around norms which, in most cases, I ought not to be using as a basis for my behaviour towards either you or your partner. It is wrong for me to think of them like that, because that is not the way of thinking about people that goes with the way they generally should be treated - the idea, called in contemporary Rawlsania the priority of the right, that just social practices create, seamlessly as it were, preferences for living within the strictures of those practices.

This is usually linked, fairly I think, to the idea that that constitutes the full realisation of our nature as free and rational beings. The connection is that it is precisely by living out a life structured around treating others as I myself ought to be treated, I project my own status out into the world, come fully to terms with it by recognizing it in others who then reflect it back to me. Sometimes, though, it would seem, that is not the status we are required to accord to others: for all the awkwardness which naturally follows from that people might not always have that status, particularly in a forum constituted by that status, as the public sphere generally is, it strikes me as a worthwhile observation.