(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘political philosophy

“Society gives legitimacy and society can take it away”*…

Yesterday’s post featured an argument that attention (which social, economic, and commercial discourse increasingly treat as a limited resource) is not in fact scarce at all, and indeed, that it is dehumanizing to think of it in that way.

Today’s offering nominates a different kind of scarcity as worthy of our thought…

Legitimacy is a pattern of higher-order acceptance. An outcome in some social context is legitimate if the people in that social context broadly accept and play their part in enacting that outcome, and each individual person does so because they expect everyone else to do the same.

Legitimacy is a phenomenon that arises naturally in coordination games. If you’re not in a coordination game, there’s no reason to act according to your expectation of how other people will act, and so legitimacy is not important. But as we have seen, coordination games are everywhere in society, and so legitimacy turns out to be quite important indeed. In almost any environment with coordination games that exists for long enough, there inevitably emerge some mechanisms that can choose which decision to take. These mechanisms are powered by an established culture that everyone pays attention to these mechanisms and (usually) does what they say. Each person reasons that because everyone else follows these mechanisms, if they do something different they will only create conflict and suffer, or at least be left in a lonely forked ecosystem all by themselves. If a mechanism successfully has the ability to make these choices, then that mechanism has legitimacy.

There are many different ways in which legitimacy can come about. In general, legitimacy arises because the thing that gains legitimacy is psychologically appealing to most people. But of course, people’s psychological intuitions can be quite complex. It is impossible to make a full listing of theories of legitimacy, but we can start with a few:

Legitimacy by brute force: someone convinces everyone that they are powerful enough to impose their will and resisting them will be very hard. This drives most people to submit because each person expects that everyone elsewill be too scared to resist as well.

Legitimacy by continuity: if something was legitimate at time T, it is by default legitimate at time T+1.

Legitimacy by fairness: something can become legitimate because it satisfies an intuitive notion of fairness. See also: my post on credible neutrality, though note that this is not the only kind of fairness.

Legitimacy by process: if a process is legitimate, the outputs of that process gain legitimacy (eg. laws passed by democracies are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by performance: if the outputs of a process lead to results that satisfy people, then that process can gain legitimacy (eg. successful dictatorships are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by participation: if people participate in choosing an outcome, they are more likely to consider it legitimate. This is similar to fairness, but not quite: it rests on a psychological desire to be consistent with your previous actions.

Note that legitimacy is a descriptive concept; something can be legitimate even if you personally think that it is horrible. That said, if enough people think that an outcome is horrible, there is a higher chance that some event will happen in the future that will cause that legitimacy to go away, often at first gradually, then suddenly…

The co-founder of Etherium, Vitalik Butarin (@VitalikButerin) on why “The Most Important Scarce Resource is Legitimacy.” Whatever one’s feeling about cryptocurrency, it’s eminently worthy of reading in full… and of submitting to the same sort of questioning that L.M. Sarcasas mustered yesterday,

* Willis Harman

###

As we channel John Locke, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1933 that the the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing the sale of beer (after 14 years of Prohibition), came into force. Americans celebrated by consuming 1.5 million barrels of beer that day.

The Cullen-Harrison Act was not the official end of prohibition in the U.S., but it did redefine an “intoxicating beverage” under the Volstead Act (which was created in 1919 to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment– and was fully repealed later in 1933).

During Prohibition, while alcohol consumption fell initially, it pretty briskly returned to 60-70% of its pre-Volstead Act levels. Indeed, it was in 1923 that the invented word “scofflaw” was introduced to the American vocabulary. Created to mean “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor,” it gained wide usage through Prohibition, and survives to day, referring to those who ignore/break minor laws that are infrequently enforced… which is to say, laws that rely on legitimacy for their effectiveness.

source

“Context is everything”*…

Figure and ground… do all grounds make bad stories, and only figures make good ones?

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: The Story.

Or, in the parlance of the moment, The Narrative. (Trend.)

I was just 22 when I wrote my first stories as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around three elements:

1. Character

2. Problem

3. Movement toward resolution

Subtract one or more of those and all you’ll have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. Which won’t run. So let’s unpack those elements a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way…

… we do have two big fails for journalism here:

1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.

2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: We need to know more than stories can tell, yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story. Same goes for “earned media coverage.” Both are features rather than bugs, because they cause much of journalism’s success, and debugging them has proven impossible…

Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without a story, statistics are cemeteries of facts.

Sure, academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists) can exhume those facts. But Big-J journalism will always be preoccupied with stories. Including, unavoidably, the genius for generating them who currently occupies the White House…

We traffic in stories because people can’t help being interested in them. But stories also fail at telling truths that don’t fit a tale. Presupposition is part of the problem; but only part. More fundamentally it is the privileging of strong (pure) emotion over messy reality, of “narrative impact” over understanding. Doc Searls (@dsearls) on “Where Journalism Fails,” eminently worth reading in full.

For some practical advice, follow Searls’ link to Jay Rosen’s suggestions.

And for a painful case-in-point, consider the wise Patrick Wyman‘s thoughts on the horrors of January 6:

We have a strong tendency to understand events unfolding as a story, a narrative, with all the structural beats we expect from a story: beginning, rising action, climax, resolution. Even as we’re consciously aware that there will be a tomorrow, a next week, and a next year, it’s hard to avoid treating the most recent big thing – in this case, the riot on the Capitol – as either the end or beginning of one particular story.

Narrative is how we process information and give the world some shape and meaning. But it’s deeply misleading as an attempt to understand the complex interactions between past and present that define a political system…

Do read it in full here.

[Searls’ piece via friend MS]

* In this phrasing and others closely linked, many, many authors/speakers, including Mary Beard, Margaret Atwood, Mary Catherine Bateson, and A.D. Garrett

###

As we only connect, we might send circumscribed birthday greetings to Edmund Burke; he was born on this date in Dublin on this date in 1729.  An author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher, he moved to England and served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party.  He’s probably best remembered for his advocacy of the American and his opposition to the French revolutions.  While Burke was held up as a beacon by both conservatives and liberals in the 19th century, the 20th century generally viewed him as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.

In “Consistency in Politics” Winston Churchill wrote:

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.

And indeed, historian Piers Brendon credits Burke’ paternalistic insistence the colonial domination was a trust, with laying the moral foundations for the British Empire:  Burke wrote that “The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other”– it was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright—freedom” …a noble aim that was in the event an ideological bacillus, as Brendon observed, that would prove fatal.

“You can never plan the future by the past.” – “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791)

“Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all”. – Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Burke c. 1767/69, from the studio of Joshua Reynolds

source

“One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived”*…

Even if 2020 [and indeed, the events of January 6, 2021] felt apocalyptic, it is reasonable to think we have not yet hit rock bottom. The threat of climate disaster and resource wars, the building of walls and refugee camps, the exorbitant wealth of powerful oligarchs alongside poverty and precarity—these will not go away with vaccines or new presidents. Amidst all this, no wonder Niccolò Machiavelli has returned to our reading lists. In his new biography of the Florentine Secretary, Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching the People What to Fear, originally published in French in 2017, historian Patrick Boucheron reminds us that there is always interest in Machiavelli in turbulent times “because he’s the man to philosophize in heavy weather. If we’re reading him today, it means we should be worried. He’s back: wake up.”

Born in 1469 in Florence, Machiavelli is a central figure in the Western canon of political philosophy. Though he is best known in the popular imagination as the conniving mastermind behind The Prince (written in 1513), which so many think of as a kind of House of Cards how-to guide for seizing and maintaining political power, we miss what is crucial when we reduce his political thought to the simplistic thesis that the ends justify the means. It is not this misunderstood consequentialism that is noteworthy in Machiavelli’s philosophy; what really makes his writing so radically distinctive is his class-based, materialist outlook. He came from an impoverished household, and his philosophy disrupted naturalized hierarchies and the hegemonic ideas that reproduce them. John Adams would rightly describe him as the founder of a “plebeian philosophy” that marshaled strong arguments for embracing popular control over government…

The introduction to the English edition of The Art of Teaching the People What to Fear, written in June 2019 for readers in the United States, begins with the theme of fear in politics and an issue of Time magazine with Trump on the cover. Boucheron argues that the United States had entered a “Machiavellian moment”—“the dawning realization of the inadequacy of the republican ideal”—in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that today, under “Trumpian America,” a fusion of politics and fiction has allowed for techniques of domination to be perfected, setting “a general disregard for the ‘actual truth of the matter.’” Referencing George Orwell’s 1984, Boucheron sees the United States as captured by a propaganda machine that has undermined reality and common sense—“that sixth sense Machiavelli spoke of, the accessory knowledge that the people have of what is dominating them.” Given the pervasive lack of realism in U.S. politics today, it is clear that the republic would appear to Machiavelli as a corrupt order, not because the powerful few break the rules or because a faction attempts to undermine the integrity of elections, but because the people have been “either deceived or forced into decreeing their own ruin.” Perhaps the most important part of Machiavelli’s wisdom for our own time is that republics tend to become oligarchic, giving the powerful few indirect control over government…

Much maligned as a mere tactician of power, Machiavelli was in fact a philosopher of the people. His critique of oligarchic domination remains essential today: “Our Machiavellian Moment.”

* Niccolò Machiavelli

###

As we ponder populism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that Thomas Paine first published (albeit anonymously) his pamphlet “Common Sense.”  A scathing attack on “tyrant” King George III’s reign over the colonies and a call for complete independence, “Common Sense” advocated immediate action.  America, Paine argued, had a moral obligation to reject monarchy and declare independence.  An instant bestseller in both the colonies and Britain (over 120,000 copies in just a few months), it greatly affected public sentiment at a time when the question of independence was still undecided, and helped shape the deliberations of the Continental Congress leading up to the Declaration of Independence.

source

“Philosophy fails to give injustice its due”*…

 

I am an American Sklar

“Following evacuation orders, this [Oakland] store, at 13th and Franklin Streets, was closed. The owner, a University of California graduate of Japanese descent, placed the I AM AN AMERICAN sign on the store front on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.” Photo/caption: Dorothea Lange (3.13.42)

 

 

An astute commentator recently suggested that Isaiah Berlin would be Riga’s greatest political thinker ‒ if not for Judith N Shklar. We are seeing the beginning of a rediscovery of Shklar and her contribution to 20th-century intellectual life, but she remains something of an insider’s reference. Who was she and what did she have to say that is so important? How did this Jewish émigrée girl from Latvia come to be regarded by many legal and political theorists as one of the 20th century’s most important political thinkers?

Shklar is most often cited as a critic of mainstream liberal thought. During the Cold War in particular, liberalism served as an ideological weapon against the totalitarian threat of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. But Shklar was concerned about the stifling dimensions of this kind of Western intellectual defence mechanism: it served merely to protect the status quo, and was very often a mere fig leaf for the accumulation of material wealth and for other, more problematic aspects of Western culture. It didn’t ignite any critical reflection or assist any self-awareness of how the liberties of Western democracy had arrived at such a perceived high standing. It was also silent about the fact that fascism had developed in countries that had been identified as pillars of Western civilisation.

In contrast to such self-congratulatory rhetoric, Shklar’s criticism aimed primarily at checking the easy optimism of Cold War liberalism, which, despite challenges to its authority, continues to maintain the inflated image of Western democracies. In Shklar’s view, liberalism is neither a state nor a final achievement. She understood, better than most, the fragility of liberal societies, and she wanted to preserve the liberties they made possible. Shklar saw the increasing availability of private consumer choice and the ever-expanding catalogue of rights often propounded in the name of liberalism as threats to the best achievements of Western democracies. In contrast to orthodox liberal arguments that aim at a summum bonum or common good, Shklar advocated a liberalism of fear, which holds in its sights the summum malum ‒ cruelty. Avoiding cruelty, and the suffering it causes, is the chief aim. Other vices such as hypocrisy, snobbery, arrogance, betrayal and misanthropy should be ranked in relation to this first vice…

Sklar

Shklar in her Harvard office

Judith Shklar and the dilemma of modern liberalism: “The theorist of belonging.”

* Judith Shklar

###

As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for Robert Maynard Pirsig; he died on this date in 2017.  A philosopher, professor, and author, he is best remembered for two books Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (an exploration into the nature of “quality” in the form of a memoir of a cross-country motorcycle trip) and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (the account of a sailing journey on which Pirsig’s alter-ego develops a value-based metaphysics).

Pirsig2005_(cropped) source

 

“Okay, so that was trolley problem version number seven. Chidi opted to run over five William Shakespeares instead of one Santa Claus.”*…

 

Trolley Problem

 

Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

The trolley dilemma explored: would you kill one person to save five?

See also your correspondent’s favorite examination of the issue, from The Good Place:

 

Indeed, Michael “resolves” the dilemma in a way that would make today’s Almanac honoree (below) proud:

 

For an earlier look at The Trolley Problem on (Roughly) Daily, see “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

[Image at top from Devine Lu Linvega (or @neauoire@merveilles.town)]

* Michael, The Good Place, Season Two, Episode Five: “The Trolley Problem”

###

As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for John Bordley Rawls; he died on this date in 2002 (Spinoza’s birthday and the anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of the Species).  A moral and political philosopher, Rawls argued for “justice as fairness,” recommending equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society.  He made these social justice arguments using a thought experiment he called the “original position,” in which people select what kind of society they would choose to live under as if they did not know which social position they would personally occupy.

Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of the way in which Rawls’ work “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”  He is widely considered the most important political philosopher of the 20th century– with the unusual distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States and Canada and referenced by practicing politicians in the United States and the UK.

A concept central to the “original position” approach to moral dilemmas is Rawls’ notion of a “veil of ignorance“: we decide the outcome without knowing which character we “are” in the situation… an approach that leads to Michael to his conclusion in The Good Place.  The “Golden Rule” strikes again!  [see also “The Unselfish Trolley Problem“]

220px-john_rawls source

 

%d bloggers like this: