Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nothing To Lose But Your Pre-Phylloxera Claret

A while ago, a friend and I had a quite heated discussion with Chris Brooke about discussing ticking bomb cases; not about ticking bomb cases themselves, since I think we all agreed about ticking bomb cases and their total irrelevance to any actual empirical case of torture, let alone any empirical practice of torture. Chris' point was that it is, given the actually existing political climate, quite wildly irresponsible to even discuss ticking bomb cases, since by undermining an absolute prohibition on torture in the real world, such discussion legitimates instances of torture in the real world, instances which are of course nothing like ticking bomb cases. Indeed, part of the point of raising the cases is often to legitimate practices of torture. I know that Chris feels much the same about discussions of when abortion might be legitimate: rather than thinking about highly artificial cases which might help us to expose and find the proper weighting for all the considerations that might be in play in the discussion of abortion, Chris thinks that anyone on the left should hammer the point that what is at stake is women's rights over their bodies. I think Chris may be on stronger ground with the ticking bomb case: I suppose what I feel we ought to do there is concede the case itself and repeatedly, in as strident tones as possible, point out their total irrelevance; ask awkward questions about how the torturer is supposed to have acquired the ability to break, through physical violence, the will of a determined terrorist, and not just that ability, but also the ability to know when they have done so, wonder loudly about whether such tightly constrained moral permissibility implies anything about the legal status of a whole class of acts, and so on. Abortion, I think, is a less obviously closed question - which of course does not imply that reductions in current time limits on it would be justified. The other obvious point is that in both cases, the cat is out of the bag: an argument has been made, and it needs to be confronted.

Chris' complaint, though, is broader. I've also heard him say - and objected when he did so - that part of the motivation for the retreat into increasingly abstract theorising, distanced from direct political relevance, in analytical political theory - what gets called ideal theory, being the theory of what we'd ideally like - is an unwillingness to confront the collapse of actual political support for the political programmes of the sort most analytical political theorists endorse. It's no accident, he thinks, that a whole generation of social democrats who came of age under Thatcher and afterwards have ended up trying to work out what some imagined perfect bunch of enlightened social democratic technocrats should do: it's a compensation for the fact there are no such technocrats, and that the chances of there being any in even the medium term are next to zero. Political theorists, he thinks, are insufficiently concerned with getting the kinds of political institutions they favour created: despite the dominance of the academy by social democrats of one sort or another, most Atlantic democracies have got noticeably less socially democratic since the publication of A Theory of Justice. Having and winning the argument amongst yourselves is all very well, but what are you going to do about it? It's not just Chris either: there's active debate inside the discipline about the role of ideal theory, what it is, and why we do it, if we should at all.

I'm all in favour of ideal theory, partly because I don't think when done properly its conclusions are quite as distant from practical political problems as some others think it is, because even when its conclusions aren't practically relevant, how they are argued for can illuminate what is practically relevant, by revealing how we ought to weigh the various considerations against each other, and also because I like doing it; I find the challenges it presents ones that I enjoy attempting to resolve. That fact, that I like doing it, is ironically especially relevant I think given that it is so apparently distant from practical political concerns. The reason it is so distant, after all, is that our world is unjust, partly because lots of people have views about their obligations to their fellows which are basically quite unreasonable. It, I think, would be quite unreasonable to expect people to bear a massively disproportionate burden, compared to the numbers of people who ought to bear parts of that burden, in the task of creating just institutions. Why should I bear more than my fair share of the weight of correcting my fellows' injustices? They are, after all, their injustices, and it is not like I can correct them alone. One's obligations of justice are not the same when everyone else does their bit as when they do not, so I think I am entitled to not do all I could, and indeed probably quite a lot less than I could, to bring about just institutions. If I want to think about ideal theory rather than how we might make concrete improvements in the here and now, then I may.

That I may, of course, is no argument that I should; a right is a right to do wrong. Indeed, I'm vaguely embarrassed that I don't do more. A mutual friend of Chris and I's today asked me to vote for them in the internal election of a left-wing group he had supposed I was a member of, and I had to tell him, regretfully, that I wasn't; effectively, that I can't be arsed. Similarly, last night, I was trying to defend a trait I think many moral and political philosophers have, that they are unwilling to try and describe their research to non-philosophers, by pointing out that explaining can involve explaining a whole philosophical background only against which the questions they're interested in make sense. Reasonably enough, one of the people I was trying to explain this too then asked what the point of research that was inexplicable to anyone not already interested in it was. Political philosophers in particular ought to make more of an effort to make their conclusions comprehensible to non-specialists, esepcially ones who claim to believe in public reason. Anything for a quiet life though. And that's also part of the problem: the failure of political theorists to engage in public discourse likely only makes it more difficult for political theorists to engage in public discourse, since that discourse is not one which they are playing any part in shaping, nor do they systematically acquire and reinforce the skills necessary to play a part in shaping it. The alarms and surprises only get worse.

That thought, that political theorists often don't really have the skills necessary to engage in public political discourse - and there are exceptions - is what started me off on this, prompted by this piece by Timothy Burke. Of course, that thought can be read a little too narrowly: you can exercise influence without direct engagement in public political forums; teaching for one thing, but also private conversation, not necessarily on topics directly related to one's research, but on questions where the skills and insights gained through one's research can be illuminating. I think, maybe wrongly, that there are certain injustices I see much more clearly, and can make others see, that I wouldn't see otherwise. I think I'm much more sharply aware of gender and status inequalities than I once was, for example: I remember being sent a link to the members of and positions they held in Berlusconi's newest cabinet just after the election, and pointing out to the person who sent it, who'd complained about there being a minister for simplification, that there were virtually no women, and they all held positions associated with traditionally feminine activities; equally, my views on class ought to be familiar. Still, it's not perfect. Not everyone has to be able to do everything; all moral universes contain loss, and all that. I suppose the thing is to see that it is loss.


Ben said...

I guess most people get fed up of trying to explain their PhD thesis in a few sentences by about half-way through, whether to specialists or non-specialists. Obviously it's easier to talk to other philosophers, because in my experience people from other backgrounds tend to think the idea is crazy(!) If you can explain it to, say, PPE students though, I think that's probably good enough.

Rob Jubb said...

But your thesis is crazy. And I'm actually quite sympathetic to it.

I'm not sure I could explain my thesis to an undergraduate who hadn't done the theory paper and Rawls on the theory paper. Perhaps if they'd been taught Rousseau well.

El said...

It wasn't exactly difficult to see there were no women in Berlusconi's cabinet - surely that's something you should have been able to see before your research? You shouldn't have to be a woman or have done research to see basic gender inequalities.

Rob Jubb said...

It was a woman who sent me the link, and they hadn't noticed. You have to be trained - or at least alerted to their existence - to see things.

Chris Brooke said...

Or you have to read the BBC website:

Rob Jubb said...

The first of those relies on you being atuned to those sorts of concerns. The second doesn't, admittedly, since it rightly comes out and accuses Berlusconi of being sexist. But none of that's to the point anyway, since what I was pointing out was that given the same set of data, one person could fail to notice a surely prominent and politically relevant fact that another did. What I noticed and they didn't is, I think, partly a product of theory. Maybe I made it sound like a more necessary link than it is.

Ian said...

Claim (i): If people acted in the manner recommended by contemporary ethical theories, that would be a good thing.

Claim (ii): People will be less likely to act in the manner recommended by contemporary ethical theories if they believe that ethical theorists are attempting to deceive or manipulate them.

Claim (iii): People will be more likely to believe that ethical theorists are attempting to deceive or manipulate them if the theorists present their arguments as pieces of rhetoric, rather than philosophy.

Rob Jubb said...

That would only work as an argument against non-ideal theory were it a) the case that non-ideal theory were always and every rhetoric, rather than philosophy, which I certainly wouldn't accuse it of being; b) claim ii) were the only consideration relevant to whether or not people acted as contemporary moral theories urge them to, which I don't think it is; c) that claim iii) were true, which I don't think it is; and finally d) if claim i) were true and people ought to act as ideal theory tells them to whether or not others do, which clearly they shouldn't and probably can't reasonably be asked to even if they should. Maybe it wasn't meant as an argument about non-ideal theory though.