Saturday, October 25, 2008

Really, Burn After Reading

Since there hasn't been any fiddly and probably totally inconsequential political philosophy here for a while, I present to you, some fiddly and probably totally inconsequential political philosophy! As regular readers may remember, my doctorate is perhaps frighteningly obsessed - notice how I put distance between the mental states of what is after all a piece of writing, and those of its creator - with G. A. Cohen's attacks on Rawls. Those attacks began by observing that Rawls' difference principle, which legitimates inequalities in income and wealth (roughly) that maximize the income and wealth of those who have the least income and wealth, seems to treat the intentions of those who would recieve the proposed inequalities as fixed. They blossom into a whole host of variously methodological and conceptual attacks, but it all starts with that observation, and the claim that that shows that at least the levels of inequality Rawls thought were justified by it are not, that in fact it legitimates very little inequality.

The idea is that like a kidnapper who demands that you pay up, or the kid gets it, ignoring the fact that it's them that makes it true that the kid gets it, Rawls' economically productive, instead of just producing as much as they could, ask for incentives to do so even though they could make more without the incentives. Like the kidnapper, that paying them will produce a good outcome is dependent on their will. Someone asking for medical treatment is usually going to be ill whether or not they decide to be ill, but how much they work is something people have control over. Cohen then says that a productive egalitarian ethos is a demand of justice, since it will increase the take of the well-off, roughly (more technically, for any given level of output that could be achieved by providing financial incentives to the productive, there is a more egalitarian distribution in which the productive are not so incentivised, and the least well-off have larger holdings, a distribution achievable if the productive have a productive egalitarian ethos).

Now, I think this kind of thing is totally crazy, mostly because I think that there are good reasons for thinking that the justice of distributions of property rights ought to be sorted out by features of systems of property rights, rather than people's motivations, and particularly their motivations about how much and at what to work. Leaving people space to live their lives is, on reflection, a more or less foundational requirement of just political systems, and if you have to take decisions about which job to do at what rate of pay on the basis of how it'll effect the distribution of property throughout your society, that requirement is not met.

But that's by the by here. The fiddly, inconsequential bit of political philosophy concerns Cohen's claim that a productive egalitarian ethos would not limit people's freedom. Cohen argues this on the grounds that moral demands in general are limits on freedom or are in general not, and so it can't be an argument against any particular moral demand that it limits freedom. It could be an argument against a law that it limits freedom, since laws coerce people, but it's not an argument against a moral demand, and the ethos is a moral demand, which he doesn't call for the legal enforcement of. This may or may not be true in general, and it doesn't matter for my argument against Cohen's position, which is that the demand is too demanding and so different from a claim about freedom. However, I think I can show that Cohen is wrong about whether or not the ethos limits a potentially significant freedom.

More or less ex hypothesi for Cohen, a society's coercive legal structures cannot distribute stuff justly: people's behaviour within those structures matters, which is why he thinks that an ethos is a requirement of justice. That means that whether or not one is complicit in injustice is going to be dependent on people's choices within coercive structures: so far as Cohen's concerned, it is only if other people chose to follow the demands of the productive egalitarian ethos, for example, that I can avoid living under a set of institutions which end up distributing stuff in a way which treats people unjustly. Obviously, in order to make his argument that the ethos does not limit freedom, Cohen has to insist that the ethos cannot be a legal requirement: indeed, otherwise it wouldn't be choice within a society's coercive legal structures. That means, though, that I have a positive right to not meet the demands of the ethos, that no-one can force me to meet the demands of the ethos. Unless everyone does meet the demands of the ethos though, for Cohen our society will be unjust: when the law prevents people from forcing each other to meet the demands of the ethos, it prevents them from making their society just. Cohen's ethos then does conflict with a certain freedom, the freedom to live in a just society. If Cohen's right, then even the best possible legal system may coercively prevent me from having to live in a society which distributes goods unjustly.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tonight We Sleep In Trieste Or In Heaven

About the best bit in the three hour long but nonetheless rather fun repetition of what Wilfred Owen called the Old Lie - itself now something of an old lie too, I suspect: nothing that prompts schools to show you episodes of Blackadder could not have ascended to the status of myth, I think - that is A Bridge Too Far is a kind of self-overcoming of that understanding of the point of martial virtue. Good old Dickie Attenborough is commanding troops holding one end of the titular bridge, totally out-numbered and out-gunned by the implacable Hun, who, coldly rational as ever, sends over a messenger to ask if the plucky Brits feel like they've been slaughtered for long enough now and might consider a surrender. Attenborough turns to one of his officers, telling him to tell the Germans to go f*ck themselves, more or less. The officer, utterly deadpan, shouts across the no-mans-land at the end of the bridge that they'd like to discuss terms, "but unfortunately we haven't the proper facilities to take you all prisoner". Consequently, more or less all the British get killed, including Attenborough's rather eccentric junior, and Attenborough, along with the remainder, gets taken prisoner. In real terms, a total bloody - literally - disaster, but as a cinematic moment, absolutely brilliant.

Until the last month or so, for the last six months that was kind of how I felt about domestic politics: whatever one was doing, it was at best gestural in that kind of way; at its heart was an acknowledgment that it couldn't possibly be doing any real good, since the forces aligned against it were so strong, but out of sheer bloodymindedness you ought to do it anyway. The Tories might be miles ahead in the polls and making all the kinds of subtle nasty party noises you'd expect, Labour's programme might consist of mostly making the benefits system increasingly punitive for anyone it thought The Daily Mail disapproved of while lacking the balls to even appear to actually do much else at all but flounder, but at least I was still pure of heart. However, now, although the Tories are still miles ahead in the polls, everything else seems to be running the right way: clearly global capitalism hasn't collapsed and we're not about to enter the proverbial socialist utopia of milk and honey, but some serious readjustments in the distribution of threat advantage have occurred. Not only do free-market ideologues seem to have lost their balls, the centre-left(ish) in power looks like it might have got them back and decided to make use of its ability to, you know, actually do stuff. Even the Fed has had to not only buy out banks but accept some political consequences for doing so, and still Americans are probably going to elect a black man as their President. I mean, a global recession is of course pretty awful and all that, and doubtless we're not going to see the complete end of attempts by finance capital to dominate political proceedings, but it warms the cockles of your heart.

So, from a much more politically dubious source, a new motto. In Como, on the lakefront, there's a really rather hideous fascist-era war memorial, cod-futurist and vulgar. Its inscription provides the title of this post. Of course, it's Owen's Old Lie without even the veneer that comes from obscuring one's meaning in a dead language: it's brash and unbelievably stupid, a moral horror really. No coughing like hags and cursing through the sludge whilst drunk with fatigue there, but instead the brazen promise of not only glory beyond imagining but also a warm bed. Like I say, a moral horror. It has a kind of fit to my mood though. One doesn't have to be resigned to the fact that politics is the art of the possible anymore; one can be hopeful that it is now, because the boundaries of the possible seem wider than they did even a couple of months ago. A stupid hoping beyond hope seems appropriate. It's maybe just as irresponsible as it is on the war memorial - a global recession is after all a definite price to pay, and it's not as if secret cadres of Rawlsians have now overtaken the commanding heights of both the state and the economy - but I suppose hopes is always in a certain sense irresponsible.

Postscript: For example, take this (via). Waiting for the great leap forwards!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Copy-Editing For The Morally Perplexed

Over the past two days, I have found three examples where I used 'but' to begin a sentence in exactly the sort of context in which I condemned its use here. Not only do I still know the difference between a foolish hope and a hope of foolishness, though, but I also eliminated all these erroneous uses of 'but' so my claim to the moral high ground is, I think, entirely safe. Entirely safe, I tell you.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Giles Coren Is Still A Prick

Although it wasn't one of my favourite moments of the just recently finished series of The Wire, I enjoyed the two scenes in which examples of the proper use of the verb 'to evacuate' were provided; first, to a reporter who had wrongly written that some number of people were evacuated, rather than the building they were occupying, and second, to a policeman who didn't understand that McNulty meant the homeless murder victim he was standing over had shat himself after being killed. This, I think, should be borne in mind when considering the complaint I am about to make. I recently recieved copy-edited proofs of a piece of writing I did. Now, I know that my writing can be rather convoluted, my meaning somewhat opaque, and so some manglings I am prepared to forgive: they were probably there in the first place, and in attempting to untangle them they only get wound more tightly. Nonetheless, some things aren't matters of style, but of basic grammar. Not understanding the difference between a foolish hope and a hope of foolishness is one, and thinking that it is acceptable to begin sentences of written English with 'but' is another. Grumpy old man interlude now over.