Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On Not Helping

I've recently been reading this collection of Michael Walzer's essays. I'd not really read anything by him other than Just and Unjust Wars before, and it's quite fun: it's not as pithy or as astute when interested in something - there's nothing as good as Williams' reading of the torture scene in in 1984 in Truth and Truthfulness, for example - but it tends towards a Bernard Williams-esque valorization of the political, except with a kind of quite intriguing and probably distinctly American civic republican spin; if Williams had wanted to defend a principle of non-intervention, then one feels it would have been on the negative grounds of the tendency towards of disaster of interventions, rather than on the positive grounds of self-determination Walzer appeals to (in this paper).

Walzer appeals to an example where we could, by putting some chemical in the water supply, costlessly and permanently turn the post-independence Algerian government into Swedish-style social democrats. Presumably we feel there's something undesirable about this; at least I share Walzer's thought that something's gone wrong here, and plausibly something about self-determination. Williams, I think though - and this is probably a pure rhetorical device here: who really knows what Williams would have thought - would just ask what the moral evaluation of the acts of gods are supposed to tell us about what we, who are not gods, should do here and now. We can't costlessly lift a whole nation from the place history has brought it to so as to carefully put it down somewhere else instead; the point of politics is that we can't go round doing things like that. There are costs, and we have to work out whether they're ones we can bear, and ones we can impose. What should be done when there are no costs at all is a question for someone else entirely. It may be worth noting here that Walzer talked about a ticking bomb case in a paper in the early seventies.

Anyway, so Walzer wants non-intervention, including neutrality in civil wars, on grounds of self-determination. Even if we can partly set aside cases involving the total change of political, economic and cultural institutions and attitudes simply through an act of will, we cannot totally set them aside: even if we think that part of what has gone wrong in the case he uses is that gods shouldn't treat mere mortals like that, or that our moral reactions aren't supposed to be callibrated for those kinds of cases, it's still seems like a wrong against self-determination. So it looks like the pro-interventionist still has a case to answer: alright, this society is by any plausible standard less than fully just, but you can't make it fully just; properly, it is for its own people to do that. Walzer doesn't want to push that as far as it might go: he allows that in cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or mass enslavement, intervention is allowed. Other than those, though, he is prepared to require the citizens - better the inhabitants perhaps - of an unjust state to suck it up: it would be wrong for outsiders to help them make their state more just.

I think this is probably wrong, but I don't have to think it's wrong because self-determination doesn't matter: ecumenically, I might think it's wrong - and this is probably something that's been said before, but because of my unfamiliarity with the literature, I just don't know it's been said or by whom - because self-determination is not a zero-sum game. For Walzer to be right that self-determination rules out active interference, it has to be the case that active interference would always in some way infringe on self-determination: maybe not self-determination across all time, but at least self-determination in the roughly here and now. That, though, doesn't look plausible about other cases of self-determination, and is likely to be even less plausible about self-determination for groups.

Consider an individual who is in a domineering relationship. Although there might be a dispute about what counts as active interference, it seems to me we could fairly actively interfere with them and yet increase their self-determination, under certain conditions at least: encourage them and provide them with resources to leave or otherwise restructure that relationship, for example; if not that, at least give them the option of doing so. That looks like active interference, and certainly like the sorts of things Walzer wants to analogously rule out for societies: helping one side in a civil war by providing it with certain resources unavailable to the other; here, not encouraging the individual to stay in the domineering relationship. Yet that could certainly increase their self-determination in the roughly here and now: an abusive partner doesn't have to be beating you to within an inch of your life - presumably the analogue of Walzer's 'no intervention without genocide, ethnic cleansing, or mass enslavement' condition - for you to become more autonomous by leaving them.

More, note that individuals are singular, whereas societies are plural, and so the dispute about what counts as self-determination for a particular individual within that individual is unlikely to be as radical as the dispute about what counts as self-determination for a particular society within that society. Nor are parts of individuals able to silence other parts of individuals in ways that parts of societies are able to silence other parts of societies. A society where everyone is involved in the self-determination is more self-determining than a society in which only some are so involved. Then, though, there are trade-offs to be made: we might be able to raise the voices of some without lowering the voices of others quite as much, or even really at all. If self-determination's not a zero-sum game, then interference doesn't have to limit it, and Walzer's argument against interference fails, but it doesn't seem that self-determination is a zero-sum game, even for individuals and surely not for societies.

Not Chained To A Lamp-post

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How Are You Never Going To Be Late?

Early on in the first season of The Wire, Avon takes D'Angelo to see an older relative in hospital, a man who must have lived in the same violent world as the pair of cousins, the younger a lieutenant in the older's drug empire. We come to know that he must have lived in this world because just before the camera draws in to reveal a healed bullet wound on his forehead, Avon says that the comatose man frightens him because his fate shows that the world they inhabit cannot be lived in forever: you only need to be "a little slow, a little late" once. That's by way of explaining the post title; not much more.

On The Counterfactual

Deadening metaphysics are,
simply, and so no beginning.
Let them mock us then, and start there.

How little subtlety there is
in observing that time passes.
A brute fact, with a distinct lack
of alchemy, of a soft touch,
poppy-petal light, skin on skin.

It has instead a discipline
A brutal self-reliance, hard
like blows to the back of the skull.

Consider reaching beyond it;

Stepping in the same river twice
And the strange tyranny
Of its impossibility.
Yet how the prospect beguiles.

To bathe in last year’s ancient rains,

To have them drawn back from the sea
And so pass out of things’ passing.

Outside endurance, enchantment,

And inside enchantment, nowhere
Endlessly left to twist tighter,
Doubling back, and again,
Ever watching each thing's leaving.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Putting Away Childish Things

One of the most annoying things about Bernard Williams was his deep suspicion of assertions of normativity which separate themselves from practice. For example, in the posthumously published In The Beginning Was The Deed, along with asking what the point of being Kant at the court of King Arthur might be, he quotes Habermas demanding that participants in the political process

drop the role of the private subject... The combination [of facticity and validity] requires a process of law-making in which the participatory citizens are not allowed to take part simply in the role of actors oriented to success

and himself goes on to say

But what is this "are not allowed to"? It cannot be blankly normative. Suppose, one is bound to say, that they do? It may be replied: it will defeat the point. But what if it does? And how can we be sure, in the light of the possibility, what the point really is?

Since this is in the course of making an argument about how political philosophers ought to theorize, this is in a certain sense a little bit rich. If we ignore that what political decisions do is not "announce that the other party was morally wrong or, indeed, wrong at all [but that] they have lost", then he had better think that there is a sense in which we have gone wrong, or else it is unclear what point he thinks he is making. In the sense that it is an interpretative point in favour of a refusal to admit certain kinds of normativity to politics, it is fairly elliptical, and in the sense that it is just a blunt refusal to admit that we might reasonably want things to go other than they do, it not only undermines his own position but is deeply unphilosophical.

On the other hand, one of the most wonderful things about Bernard Williams was his deep suspicion of assertions of normativity which separate themselves from practice. There's an early passage either in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy or Morality: An Introduction to Ethics where Williams pours utter scorn on the idea that what people are really like is the way that they would behave in a lifeboat which is sinking because it is overfull. The idea is that just as we would not expect to see what a tropical plant is like by placing it in the Antarctic, we hardly find out what humans are like by imagining them under conditions where cooperation and compromise are pretty likely to result in them dying. Similarly, the integrity objection to utilitarianism importantly relies on the thought that it matters to use what we as individuals do, rather than how the world ends up being once are acts and omissions are endlessly mediated through the agency of others. The thought seems to have been that philosophy is an account of what we do as humans, and if it stops being intelligible as such an account, then it has failed. Philosophy is a humanistic discipline, and the ones we really ought to hate are the reductionists, just as relativism - and I think this is probably my favourite of Williams' aphorisms - is either too early or too late; because either it answers the question, should we tolerate those people we have no straightforward way of persecuting, or because it does not answer the question, given that you and I have some practical disagreement about the moral status of some act, how do we and ought we to resolve that disagreement without bloodshed.

All this is by way of objecting to another way of understanding philosophy. One of my colleagues was talking a couple of weeks ago about some research which claims that children are much more philosophical than adults. Unlike adults, apparently children go round constantly questioning things; they're forever asking about the sources of authorities they encounter, demanding causal histories of events or explanations that they're given, and so on. They always want to know why, are resolutely independent, critical inquirers, whereas adults are in contrast dupes, with both the ability and the will to tear back the veil and see what lies beneath atrophied, beaten down by time and the need to get by in a world which has limited patience for a refusal to acquiesce in the way things are. Time and the need to get by in world which had limited patience for a refusal to acquiesce in the way things are, at least for some values of 'the way things are', though, are central features of human existence. The reason children don't (always: children don't go round asking why their parents love and care for them, or not usually at least, or, minimally, don't usually behave like they've been asking that question, for example; one should always ask which questions aren't being asked, what forms of life are being privileged) behave like beings which have got used to them is because they aren't beings which have got used to them. That, though, doesn't mean that no-one should have got used to them, that the presumption should be against having got used to them, that philosophy is constituted by not having got used to central features of (adult) human life. Who would this philosophy be for, which goes round always demanding why? What would it not demand why of? Would it demand why it wants to know why, and what answer would it accept to that question? Where would it begin from, and who would recognise the world the answers to its questions left?

Another way of expressing this worry is to wonder about the conditions which might fulfil what Williams called the Basic Legitimation Demand, which requires that political orders are intelligible to those who live under them as solutions to the problem of providing order - without themselves becoming a problem in precisely those terms. I spoke to another colleague about this some time last week, who was fairly insistent that the work that intelligibility was doing there was not just a black box in the general sense which Williams obviously intended it to be - so that we could be Lancelot at Camelot and John Rawls at Harvard - but similarly indeterminate in any concrete situation - who could tell whether we ought not to be Lancelot at Harvard and Rawls at Camelot? In particular, they wanted to insist that Robert Nozick's right-libertarianism was a viable answer to Williams' question; that if the sorts of political orders we have round here now could tell all those they exercise their coercion over that in some imagined state of nature, they would not be worse off, that in the midst of riches being in the same state as a hunter-gatherer is sufficient to legitimate (being coopted into ensuring) coercive denial of access to those riches. I saw the tail end of a BBC4 documentary on the Miner's Strike this evening: I would have liked to see someone walk up to a striking miner in 1984, and tell them that since they weren't yet starving to death, the political order they lived under was legitimate. It's hard to explain to a crying child, after all, and we shouldn't make people do it unless we have to.