Monday, November 26, 2018

Nationalism 018: Reparations vs Distributive Justice

We, as a society, have engineered a set of sentiments whereby somebody who is wronged may demand help, but a person who is merely harmed but not wronged may only ask for assistance. I do not see good reason to engineer society in this way. It is something that people with wealth and power who are concerned about their treatment at the hands of others with wealth and power have reason to engineer. Concern for the poor provides them with no benefit, so they have an incentive to dismiss it as supererogatory. However, this does not justify the practice.

I come to this point in a consideration of reparations for colonization, enslavement of its people, and other wrongs committed by one nation against another.

Imagine a particularly eventful weekend morning. As you are walking down the street, off to your right, a hapless stranger is struck by a meteor shattering his arm, breaking a major artery, and he is laying on the ground bleeding to death. On your left, an individual has been badly beaten unjustly – on the basis of race or religion or having something the attackers wanted – by bigots or gang members either for fun or for profit.

Why is it more important to help the person on your left who is the victim of an injustice, and not the person on your right who is the victim of an accident?

Helping the person on your right is widely considered supererogatory – above and beyond the call of duty. You may help him if you want to – and we will praise you if you do. At the same time, we are anxious to find somebody to blame for the attack on the left and to make sure that the victim is restored to his former state. If the person on the right is left to die of his wounds, there is a good chance that nobody will be arrested or punished. In virtue of being wronged, that person on the left has a claim against others – a claim that he can use to demand assistance. The person on the right has no such claim. He may ask for help, but may not demand it.

This came to my mind as I read the following from Mills’ essay:

Moreover, a reparative normative project has traditionally been seen as more urgent in ethical theory, since it is obligatory for all liberals to correct violations of negative rights, whereas poverty relief is too easily pushed over the moral border into the realm of the supererogatory, praiseworthy but not (for right-wing liberals) required of us. (Mills, Charles W., “Race and Global Justice”, p. 27)

Though it may be a coincidence, I think it is useful to note the fact that if a group of wealthy people were to get together and choose a moral theory, they would have reason to choose this distinction. The political and economic elite have reason to demand compensation or reparations from other members of the elite that cost them money or position. However, they may well expect that they will not have much use for an overall concern for the poor, nor would they have reason to cultivate such a sentiment in others (or to allow others to promote such a sentiment in them).
Kok-Chor Tan defended the use of reparative arguments on the grounds that they work.

So supplementing arguments from equality with arguments from reparation for colonialism can help motivate compliance with the demands of egalitarian justice. It appeals more directly to people’s moral intuitions that individuals must take responsibility for their wrongdoing. (Tan, Kok-Chor, “Colonialism, Reparations, and Social Justice”, in Reparations: Interdisciplinary Inqiries by Jon Miller and Rahul Kumar, (eds.), Oxford University Press, p. 286).

First, it doesn’t work if the person who needs help was harmed but not wronged. In the story I told above, reparative arguments may motivate people to help the person who was wronged but provide no additional motivation to help the person who was hit by the meteor. It only works in cases where an individual was both wronged and harmed.

Second, I have not questioned the descriptive claim that a perception of wrongness motivates. Tan may be correct – pointing out that the person was wronged may, in fact, motivate people to give more and faster help. This is something for psychologists and public relations and marketing firms (firms whose job it is to determine how best to motivate people to act) to answer. I am interested in whether it should be the case that mere harms – harms that are not caused by wrongs – fail to motivate.

Tan has another argument available to defend claims that an individual has been wronged as relevant and important – when they are true. This is to help to establish and set the norms of society – to acknowledge the fact and to teach the lesson that decent people do not behave in this way. Condemnation reinforces the norm. It helps to make it the case that similar actions will not occur in the future because people know better. There is reason to do this. However, it is also possible to do this while giving aid to the person struck by the meteor. This does not answer the question I posed at the start of this essay – it asks the question in different words. Why are we not working to establish a norm whereby those in need of help, even if they have not been wronged – are helped by condemning the failure to help?

Here, I am drawing on the fact that praise and condemnation are processed in the brain to produce rules for behavior - social and cultural norms - that will, in turn, influence future actions. We have reason to condemn colonization and slavery as a way of promoting social norms against them, so as to reduce the possibility of similar crimes being committed in the future. A demand for reparations provides just such a statement of condemnation. In this case, one has reason to use the reparations argument - but it does not explain the supererogatory nature of helping those who were harmed but not wronged.

Charles Mills makes use of this argument in writing about the importance of recognizing the role that race has played in the past and that it currently plays in our political and social systems. It would be fundamentally dishonest to pretend that wrongs committed on the basis of race did not exist. They did not exist, and what we have now are the effects of those historical events. This provides a reason to say, “those people were wronged,” and to seek some form of correction. However, this does not justify the attitude that the person harmed but now wronged may be ignored.

Here, we may conceive of two ways of looking at the person who was wronged. We can debate whether that person is to be helped because he was wronged or because he was harmed. Mills’ arguments and Tan’s as well provide reason to insist that we correctly and honestly describe that person’s situation as that of a person who was wronged. This is because, according to Tan, people are more likely to help him and, because of Mills, because these facts are important – they ought not to be ignored. However, we are still ignoring the person on the right – the person harmed but not wronged.

There is a practical problem here that I do not have any idea how to solve. A morally concerned individual apparently has obligations to end climate change, end the abuse of international domestic workers, prevent the buying and selling of blood oil, resolve race relations, end the refugee crisis, end global poverty, oppose fascism . . . all at once. Any one of these would represent a full-time commitment – and no human being has the capacity to become fully involved in all of them. With so many problems to fix and each of them taking so much work, it suggests that there is no way any individual has any chance of to avoid being a villain.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Fox News playing Joseph Goebbels

Fox News is playing the role of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to Trump’s Hitler.

Is this your typical election hyperbole?

Every election is filled with exaggerated claims about Presidential intentions. Every administration is met with warnings (from the other party) about how the administration is secretly planning to create a dictatorship and, thus, must be removed from power.

And, for the record, I am not talking about a secret conspiracy to establish a dictatorship. All parties are “playing it by ear”. But, like a tsunami coming in from the ocean, the fact that the water did not conspire to destroy the city does not imply that the city is safe.

In this tsunami, Trump is a showman with no moral compass. He tells people what they want to hear with absolutely no sense of tight and wrong. Fox News (like Joseph Goebbels) sees profit in hitching it’s wagon to the showman. Goebbels had a very prominent role in Nazi Germany by promoting Hitler. Ambitions at Fox News are served by serving Trump in the same way. “Do you want to talk to Trump? You get to him through us.”

But there is far more to it than taking advantage of a relationship.

Hitler gained power on a message that somebody needed to protect Germany (and Germans) from a fictitious “Jewish Menace.” Goebbels accommodated Hitler by filling the media with images and messages of a fictitious Jewish Menace. Together, they filled the German people with a fear and hatred of Jews. At first, it was just words. Then, some took to violence - vandalism, assault, murder. The laws grew harsher. The levels of hatred and fear grew - probably not by anybody’s design. Like a natural disaster, there were natural forces at work. They formed a tidal wave - a tsunami - of hatred, immorality, and violence that left 60 million dead - and that was just a small fraction of the cost.

Trump gained power on a message that somebody needed to protect America (and Americans) from a fictitious “Immigrant Menace.” Fox News accommodated Trump by filling the media with images and messages of a fictitious Immigrant Menace. Together, they filled the American people with a fear and hatred of immigrants. At first, it was just words. Then, some took to violence - vandalism, assault, murder. The laws grew harsher. The levels of hatred and fear grew - probably not by anybody’s design. Like a natural disaster, there were natural forces at work. They formed a tidal wave - a tsunami - of hatred, immorality, and violence that will leave untold numbers dead and that will be just a small fraction of the cost.

Fox News is playing the role of Goebbels to Trump's Hitler.

Fox News is lying to us about the immigrants in Mexico. They are a threat to us in the same way that the family living across the street is a threat to you when they bundle up their children and run in your direction as they flee murderers and rapists who have invated their home. Or, they are just as much of a threat as you would be if you bundled up your family and ran away from murderers and rapists who have invated your home. Fox News wants to fill us with fear and hate because that allows them to keep their position on the right-hand side of Trump. Goebbels wanted to fill the German people with fear and hatred of Jews because it allowed him to keep his privileged position on the right-hand side of Hitler.

“That can’t happen! You are exaggerating.”

If something DID happen, then it CAN happen. And, remember, I am not talking about a conspiracy. I am talking about natural forces coming together to create a very dangerous situation. (1) A political leader that completely lacks any sense of right and wrong, (2) a population of human beings disposed to rally around a leader who promises to "protect" them from an imagined enemy, and (3) a propaganda organization willing to deliver the message that this imagined enemy is a genuine threat.

Trump gives us (1). Fox News gives us (3). Will the American people give us (2)?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Press and The Enemy of the People

In our current political environment, Trump is playing the role of Hitler and Fox News the role of Joseph Goebbels. And, the election ends in one week from this posting.

Hitler delivered a message of hate and fear, and Goebbels amplified that message in the press. Or, Goebbels filled the media with a message of hate and fear, and Hitler exploited that message to become Chancellor of Germany. Both routes lead to the same well-known conclusion.

Comparably, Trump and Fox News are delivering and profiting from a comparable message of hate and fear. They fill the same two rolls.

When I make this comparison, is this comparable to Trump saying that “the press is the enemy of the people?” If somebody were to send a pipe bomb to Trump or Fox News headquarters, would my rhetoric be in any way to blame? Ought I to not write these things in the name of civility?

Anybody who knows my writings knows that I argue that political violence is legitimate only if peaceful options have been eliminated. As long as we can cast meaningful votes, we may not legitimately use guns and bombs.

Granted, the Republican Party has bent over backwards to weaken the right to vote. Through Gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other tactics, a Democratic vote now counts for about 0.9 Republican votes. That is to say, 1 out of 10 Democratic votes are either gerrymandered into impotence or diluted by the need to represent people who are kept from voting through voter suppression tactics. To the degree that the Republican Party continues these practices, to that degree they threaten the legitimacy of the rule of law. But, they have not eliminated democracy. It is still possible to vote them out of power, even though it takes a supermajority of about 55% to do so. While peaceful options remain, bombs and bullets are prohibited.

Also, violence against Trump and Fox News would not work. They are not the source of the problem. They are symptoms of a problem that actually never goes away.

Trump has a simple heuristic. He says something and listens to the audience response. If the audience cheers, he repeats it. If not, he drops it. He is simply an echo of the sentiments of his audience. However, in echoing those sentiments back at the audience, he amplifies them. They grow louder and more extreme.

If Trump had run as a Democrat, it is likely that the same thing would have happened, only with a different message. Instead of unleashing white and Christian supremacy and directed the nation in the direction that Nazi Germany took, we would be at risk of rehearsing for a modern version of the French Terror where we lined billionaires, corporate executives, and priests up at the guillotine for execution. But, he did not run as a Democrat, so we do not have those problems (yet).

The same is true of Fox News. They say something and look at the ratings. If the ratings go up, they repeat it. If not, they drop it. Truth does not matter. Evidence does not matter. Future implications do not matter. Current ratings matter.

So, the problem rests, not with Trump or Fox News, but with what the audience cheers and what is echoed back to them. One is not going to solve that problem with bombs and bullets.

More to the point, it is not wrong in itself to say that the press is an enemy of the people. It is another way of saying that the press is not serving some of the public's interest. Much of the press does not. They prefer to print or broadcast half-truths and deceptions that promote a political tribe. They look at what gets "like" and "shares" and care nothing about truth, evidence, or long-range implications.

The problem is with doing this recklessly or with malevolence.

Imagine that you and I are walking down the street. You are armed. I point to somebody on the other side of the street and shout, “MY GOD, HE HAS A GUN! HE’S GOING TO MURDER SOMEBODY.” You then shoot and kill this person.

It is not wrong in itself for me to shout this. That depends on whether he has a gun and he is about to murder somebody - or whether I at least have credible and responsible evidence to that effect. Given the potential consequences, I had better have very good evidence.

Similarly, it is not wrong in itself to say that the press is the enemy of the people. It is not wrong to say that a caravan of refugees is an enemy army coming to invade our country, kill and rape us, and perhaps even eat some food if they are hungry and it is generously provided. What is wrong in itself is saying on a public news broadcast day after day when all of the available evidence suggests that it is false, “MY GOD, THEY ARE RAPISTS, MURDERERS, AND MIDDLE-EASTERN TERRORISTS FUNDED BY DEMOCRATS AND JEWS ON THEIR WAY TO CONQUER OUR NATION!”

When somebody mails pipe bombs, another shoots two black people at a grocery store, and a third kills 11 Jews after hearing such a message, there is good reason to condemn the people who delivered the message. This is true in the same way that if you were to kill the person across the street on my perhaps malevolent, perhaps reckless assertion that he was about to murder somebody, I would share moral responsibility for those consequences. Decent people are neither malevolent nor reckless about such things. Decent people condemn those types of lies and recklessness.

Trump is playing the role of Hitler. Fox News is playing the role of Goebbels. And we are having an election where we can still peacefully defeat these people.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Nationalism 016: A Refugee's Right to Work

There is no sense to the aversion to employing refugees in the host country. Such an aversion does a great deal of harm, and no actual good. The good attributed to these attitudes is imaginary.

A substantial portion of the problem of refugees is caused by humans.

Here, I am not talking about the humans who created the refugees - either through violent conflict of environmental degradation. That is one of the ways in which we cause the problem, but not the one that concerns me here.

It is caused by the fact that, once a refugee enters a camp in a host country, she is not permitted to contribute to that country. She is forced to sit in a shelter and receive handouts. She becomes a much greater burden than she needs to be and, in fact, a much greater problem than she wants to be (in most cases).

Reference: Why Denying Refugees the Right to Work Is a Catastrophic Error. This is an edited extract from their book, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

It is absurd to think that a population of, let us say, 50,000 people who are productive contributors to a state on one side of an imaginary line become a burden to be warehoused on the other side of that imaginary line. This is a part of the absurdity of, "they are taking our jobs". This is scapegoating.

It is as if you were to be so kind as to offer refuge to somebody stranded in a life-threatening snow storm, then deny them any opportunity to help clean the house, chop some firewood, or fix a meal because your "prosperity" depends on doing this yourself. Meanwhile, you are providing this person with food and other necessities, complaining about the fact that he is such a "burden" on your household, and promising never to be so kind in the future.

This is a significant part of the tragedy of the current system for handling refugees - the fact that prohibiting peaceful and honest contributions to the host society feeds a hatred of refugees that, in turn, feeds a resolve to offer no more aid. This is not only harmful to the refugees, it is harmful to those who are acting on an irrational hatred of "foreigners" as opposed to the same type of rational cooperation and mutual support (and mutual benefit) that one provides to fellow nationals.

So, you have a tent city with 50,000 refugees in it. Why not make it a city? You will need infrastructure. Well, there's people in that city capable of working - building structures, developing roads, putting in a sanitation system, teaching, sewing, capable of operating indoor gardens and farms, sewing, manufacturing, collecting and reporting news, providing entertainment from poetry and literature to singing and stage performance, and the like. These things happen in a camp anyway. However, because these operations are officially prohibited, they are not policed, contracts cannot be enforced, and the best businesses are those that do not require any type of capital such as tools (e.g., prostitution).

Indeed, a refugee community permitted to actually work and earn money will have money to spend. Thus, it has the potential to be a source of jobs for members of the host country - providing the refugees with goods and services that will help them in the businesses.

A recent study commissioned by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford and conducted in Uganda - one of a few nations that allows refugees tow ork - shows that they can make a contribution. In Kampala, the nation's capital, 21% of refugees run a business that employs at least one other person; of those they employ, 40% are citizens of the host country.

Again, this does not include the contribution that these businesses make as consumers of the goods and services provided by others. This also does not include the tax revenue that legal and open refugee-run businesses provide to the state.

The average length of stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. Putting one's life on hold for 17 years is a tremendous burden. It is not unreasonable to compare this to having no life at all. It is little wonder that so many refugees avoid the camps and become illegal residents in urban centers. It is little wonder that so many refugees pay smugglers hundreds or thousands of dollars to smuggle them into another country - a journey where they risk life and limb (including rape, torture, and drowning) . . . because, all things considered, it is better than wasting away in a camp.

The article referenced above describes a pilot program between England, the World Bank, and Jordan to provide work opportunities to Syrian refugees who have fled to that country. One of the points they make is that it has proven to be easier to create work opportunities for these people nearer their country of origin - where they speak the language, know the culture, and in many cases know other people - than to find them work in countries such as Germany where they lack the language and other training skills given to those who grow up in Germany.

The bottom line is . . . let the refugees work. They are made better off. Those around them - those in their host country in particular - are better off. And, when the situation changes in their original country and they are ready to return home, it is not such a long journey to make.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Nationalism 015: Refugee Options

We have created a grotesquely immoral system with respect to refugees.

In my previous posting, I discussed what counts as a refugee. I am following the convention that a refugee is somebody who must leave his country to find or establish a minimum level of security - security from violence, from thirst or starvation, and from death caused by natural disaster (e.g., rising sea levels).

We have created a system that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would find unacceptable.

This posting is based substantially on work by Serena Parekh. In 2018, she gave a speech at the Naval Academy that discussed in greater detail the points mentioned below.

Refugees are given three options:

(1) A refugee camp. A refugee who goes to a camp will be assigned a location - a building or tent - and told to stay there and do nothing with their lives until conditions change in their home country and they can go back, or they can be relocated in a host country. The average length of stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. In these camps, refugees (particularly women) are still at risk of violence (particularly sexual violence). It's not much different from a 17 year prison sentence in a massive prison - except, if one has children, one's children will be locked up - and can expect to grow up, reach adulthood, and start a family of their own, within the camp.

(2) Urban centers. Many (most) refugees go to the nearest city where they can disappear into the crowd. However, in this situation, they have no access to food or medical care. Their children have no access to education. Because they are there illegally, they are subject to exploitation by employers or others who can use the threat of deportation against them. The advantage is that, even though they are subject to these risks, they can at least build something of a life. They have options other than sitting in a tent for 17 years.

(3) Smuggling. The refugee pays a smuggler that will get them through the barriers that developed countries have placed around their countries. These smugglers also subject their "cargo" to rape and other forms of violence. Once the smuggler gets paid, they have little use for their "cargo". So, they put their refugees on boats (rubber rafts) that are cheap (since the boat will be confiscated), overcrowded, with too little food and water, and let the refugees take a risk of reaching the shore of the country where they are seeking refugees.

Parekh calls this "institutional injustice". People are causing (are morally responsible for) creating - not just with failing to prevent, but with actually creating - a great deal of harm by creating institutions whereby only harmful (or extremely risky) options are available. We give a person an option: "either cut off your right arm, or cut off your left arm," and then we deny responsibility for the fact that the victim is missing an arm because we say "it was her choice." We give refugees these poor options of lifeless camps, lawless life in an urban center, or human trafficking, and we deny our own moral responsibility because, whichever option they choose, it was their choice.

One of the principles responsible for this condition is that a refugee can not seek refugee status until after they have left the country where they are experiencing the problem. The problem that I am talking about here is a fear of death or other significant harm caused by criminal agents (an oppressive state, armed gangs that the state cannot control), cultural oppression (child marriage, genital manipulation, discrimination that deprives the individual of a meaningful life), or natural disaster (sea level rise, drought). By "problems", I am talking about somebody whose life is at risk of becoming tragic - a massive dose of human suffering.

So, we create rules where we tell these people, "You can only escape this if you can get to a country where people can take care of you", and then we put as many barriers as we can in the way of these people getting to countries where they can find refuge. Nations deny visas to individuals from countries from which they may be wanting to seek refuge. Navies patrol the waters with an intent to actually prevent the rescue of refugees at sea since recuse is a way of reaching the shores of the desired country. We build walls. We send in armies.

This is the rule that is causing the problem. If you can keep the refugee out of your country, you are not responsible for that refugee's fate. You can stand by and watch as they suffer and die, so long as they do not suffer and die on your property. Only then, according to this moral model, are you obligated to help.

The question to ask is whether the person with good desires and lacking bad desires only cares about the people who suffer and die on his property. It would seem difficult to justify this sentiment. If you are suffering and dying one one side of an imaginary line, your suffering and death matters . . . but if you suffer and die ten feet to the left on the other side of an imaginary line, the good person would not care.

We can reduce . . . not eliminate, but certainly reduce . . . many of these problems with one simple rules change.

Allow the refugees within the refugee camps to work and be productive - to earn money.

They do this to some extent anyways. They set up black markets in these refugee camps. However, this is necessarily limited and riddled with crime and corruption. Furthermore, it tends to involve the types of businesses that are not easily controlled - such as prostitution. It is a poor substitute to allowing the refugees to seek honest labor.

The objection here is that they will be taking jobs from the local population.

This objection makes no sense. You have a population where, when they were on the other side of the imaginary line, was making a net contribution to their own society - one in which they are able to take care of their own families out of their own pockets. They built cities that decidedly were not a burden on their neighbors. There is no reason to believe that, just because they moved to the other side of an imaginary line, that they could not make a meaningful contribution to that community as well.

We turn refugees into a burden because we do not allow them to make a contribution. We then promote an attitude of hostility to refugees because they are seen as a burden.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Nationalism 014: What is a Refugee?

There are folks in the world who get trapped in horrendous circumstances. A malevolent dictator seeks to have them chopped up into little pieces and buried in a garden, or a theocracy wants to have them slain for believing in the wrong gods (or no god at all), or denies some intelligent and curious young woman any option but to be the housebound near-slave of some patriarch, or bigots are rounding up homosexuals for the purpose of throwing them off of the highest roof, or bullets and bombs fly all around as two factions engage in violent conflict.

The reading in this post concerns Chapter 5 of: Miller, David (2005), Strangers in our Midst, Harvard University Press.

We are going to start with the 1951 convention on refugees that describes a refugee as:

owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

Let's be honest, this system has some weaknesses. First of all . . . persecution? That seems an awful narrow standard for determining whether or not one is a refugee.

In order to try put some of these moral points into perspective, I want to consider an analogy.

I have a house. I have a large couch that I am certain somebody would like to sleep on – particularly on a cold winter night. However, I exercise a right of exclusion over the use of that couch regardless of the outside temperature. I deny others refuge. Though, clearly, there are circumstances in which I have no moral permission to exclude.

Of course, in the terms of desirism, whether it is right for me to deny refuge depends on whether a person with good desires and lacks bad desires would deny refuge under those circumstances. This is the principle that I am going to use to examine whether to deny refuge to certain people.

In order for this to make a bit more sense, I also want to imagine that my house has a yard covering several acres and is surrounded by a wall. This wall is not so large that somebody could not scamper over it if the need arose. However, it is a barrier and I can keep people on the other side if I put enough effort into it. The question is whether or not to offer refuge to somebody who scampers over my wall.

The 1951 convention says that, if somebody makes it over my wall, and that person is fleeing "persecution" - that is, some warlord or other group is seeking to cause him harm, then I cannot just throw him back over the wall. In the literature on refugees this is called "refoulment" and it is considered morally prohibited. I would agree . . . a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not just throw the person back over the wall.

However, let us say that what he is fleeing is rising floodwaters or a forest fire. He is not being persecuted. Therefore, according to the 1951 convention, I can, in fact, throw him back over the wall. However, no person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do such a thing. This person deserves refuge as much as the person fleeing the despotic warlord.

Miller agrees with this, by the way. He includes in his qualifications for refugee status:

Those whose human rights are under threat either from natural calamities or from private acts of violence that the state is unable to prevent, and who can only avoid this threat by migrating.

I want to look at David Miller’s third criterion. This refers to:

Those whose human rights are presently under threat, but who could be helped either by migrating or by outside intervention.

In my analogy, this would apply to the person who wants to use my couch on a very cold winter's night. According to Miller, I can throw him back over the wall so long as he "could be helped . . . by outside intervention." Indeed, he could be helped by somebody building a shelter on the other side of the wall. Therefore, he does not qualify as a refugee, and my obligation to provide him with refuge is limited.

This seems to have an important ambiguity. The mere fact that somebody (else?) could build a shelter seems insufficient for denying refugee status. If I deny refugee status on the possibility of a shelter that does not exist, the refugee has neither refuge nor a shelter. We need to replace “could be helped” with “would be helped” by migrating or outside intervention. If an actual shelter exists, then I can feel free to keep him from using my couch. But there has to be a shelter.

And it has to be a good shelter. It can't be a shelter that, itself, violates the rights of those who forced by circumstances to make use of it.

Another thing to notice about Miller's statement is its use of passive voice. He writes about "could be helped" without saying anything about who is doing the helping. This is actually intentional - he addresses the issue of assigning responsibility in the second half of his chapter. Suffice it to say at this point that, even though I may deny the person the use of my couch so long as there is a shelter available for him to use, I also have an obligation to contribute to the creation of a safe shelter, so long as I can do so. This is what a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would do.

(I don't really think about these issues as much as I should. As a result of writing this, I felt compelled to do some research to make sure that there were adequately funded shelters in my area. It seems that there are. The most recent news articles I found on the subject suggest that they are adequate. And I, as a taxpayer, have an obligation to vote in such a way that it stays this way.)

Nationalism 013: Informed Voters

Is it possible, in a democracy, for voters to cast informed votes on scientific matters when the voters do not have the scientific competence to assess these matters?

Elizabeth Anderson says yes. This is because voters, even though they lack scientific competence, have relevant competencies in identifying scientific experts. They do not use this competence as much as they should, but everything they need is available to them.

This comes from: Anderson, Elizabeth (2011), "Democracy, Public Policy, and Lay Assessments of Scientific Testimony", Epistome Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 144-164.

In her argument that voters have all they need to cast informed votes on scientific matters, Anderson argues that what voters need is not scientific competence, but the competence to assess scientists. Specifically, voters need easy access to information that will tell them a scientist's level of expertise, honesty, and integrity.

In the area of expertise, voters need easy access to information that will tell them the scientist's rank in the profession, their relevant area of expertise, and whether they are currently publishing in the field.

In the area of honesty, voters need to be able to determine whether the scientist has any conflicts of interest and whether there is evidence that the scientist has misrepresented findings or made misleading statements.

In the area of intellectual integrity, the voter would be looking for evidence that the scientist responds appropriate to reasonable objections and whether the scientist elsewhere supports crackpot ideas.

Anderson argues that, with a reasonable amount of effort, a voter can determine what the consensus is among respected experts in the relevant scientific fields on matters such as climate change and other scientific concerns.

Let's grant this.

Let us assume that I follow Anderson’s advice and I go through her formula to discover that competent scientists believe that global warming is taking place, it will be destructive overall (though some people will benefit), and that there are things that humans can do to prevent it.

(Note: At this point, one would normally talk about whether climate change is caused by human activity - but I hold that to be politically irrelevant. If a meteor were heading towards Earth or a new outbreak of Ebola emerged in Africa, the fact that these threats were not "man-made" would not be used to argue against taking action against them. The "man made" debate in the realm of climate change is used by those who profit from activities that produce greenhouse gasses to cloud the public discussion and, thus, hinder effective political action. What matters is not that climate change is man-made, but that there is something we can do to prevent it.)

After I do my research, I then write a blog post where I present my findings to my reader.

Should my readers pay any attention to what I write?

One interpretation of Anderson's article says that they should not. After all, I have the lowest possible ranking in the category of "expertise", that of "layman". If we accept this answer, this means that each voter has an obligation to make this assessment themselves and to ignore anything said to them by those friends and family members who do not have the relevant expertise, honesty, and integrity. It means that all public discussion of political matters among non-experts is . . . probably . . . illegitimate.

At this point, we can grant Anderson's claim that a voter could find out the scientific consensus on climate change. But, can they also find out the scientific consensus on gun control, universal basic income, tariffs, monetary policy, minimum wage laws, drug laws, asbestos, ozone, pre-school education, class size, spanking, racial injustice, drone strikes, immigration, etc., etc., etc. This list is quite long.

I would argue that it is impossible to become an informed voter on more than a few issues.

Actually, Anderson allows that responsible voters may go to sources other than the scientists themselves. She devotes a large portion of her discussion to responsible media. This at least assumes that a voter can get her information from the media, where the media, in turn, gets its information from the scientists in the manner she described. This would allow me to produce my blog posting on climate change.

However, what voters would then need is not a set of criteria for determining reliable scientific testimony, but criteria for determining what counts as reliable media. Her thesis that democracy is not threatened, “provided citizens can make reliable second-order assessments of the consensus of trustworthy scientific experts” needs to be replaced by, or supplemented by, a thesis that citizens can make reliable second-order assessments about the expertise, honesty, and responsibility of public media, such as my blog.

Without the ability to (and the willingness to) assess responsible media, we still confront the problem that voters may be casting votes without understanding the issues relevant in any given election.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Nationalism 012: Epistemology of Disagreement

This posting is less concerned with political philosophy than with epistemology - the theory of knowledge. However, it does have relevance for the latter subject.

In my previous post, I considered the idea that political liberalism (or, perhaps, better described as a culture of political toleration), combined with elements of the philosophy of disagreement, suggested that citizens in such a society needed to be skeptical of philosophical, moral, and political truths. Political toleration and philosophical, moral, and religious conviction were incompatible.

This "philosophy of disagreement" from which this argument sprang asks the question, "How should a person respond to the fact that equally intelligent people disagree?" We must all admit that, on most political issues, at least some people who disagree with us are as knowledgeable (if not more knowledgeable), as intellectually responsible (if not more intellectually responsible), and as concerned with the welfare of the world than we are. Yet, they advocate a different path. On what grounds do we assert that they must be wrong and that society must listen to us?

As I have mentioned, there is a level at which this is the question that got me started in asking questions in philosophy. I had my own ideas on how to create a perfect world, and was concerned about the fact that intelligent people who are at least as caring as I disagreed with me on how to do it. The common public response to this type of situation is to merely dismiss any critics as corrupt or ignorant. I did not take that route. I acknowledged their concern and their intelligence - and yet, somehow, they came up with a different answer.

Now, when I look at issues where I disagree with others, I notice that I seldom confront a situation where I must make a conclusion based solely on the fact that others disagree.

I have learned to distinguish between a person who is informed on an issue, and a person who is uninformed.

An uninformed person should not be drawing any conclusions on an issue but should instead say, "Because I have not studied the matter in sufficient detail, I am not well enough informed to have an opinion."

The only person who has a right to render an opinion is the person who is informed. However, the person who is informed not only knows that others disagree with her, but why. Furthermore, she has a "theory of wrongness" = a theory that explains why they are wrong. She also knows that those who disagree with her believe that she is wrong, and she has answers to their "theory of wrongness".

I am not denying the possibility that two intelligent and concerned individuals can ultimately reach different conclusions. This is possible where two philosophers who have studied all of the philosophical literature still come to a disagreement on the existence of God, the objectivity of value, the reality of numbers, or the foundations of knowledge. However, this does not describe the situation that most voters find themselves in. If we are restricting our discussion to the common voter responding to disagreement, we get a different response. Disagreement is a sign and a symptom of one's own ignorance. The fact that others disagree should be taken as evidence that one does not know the subject matter well enough to have an opinion.

We should distinguish the epistemology of disagreement from the epistemology of insufficient information. These are both important areas of study - and I am not dismissing either of them as being some trivial matter containing only obvious answers. There are situations where a person must make a decision even without having all of the relevant information - where obtaining more information is either too costly (in terms of economic opportunity costs) or, simply, impossible. It is to be expected that when two insufficiently well informed people reach a conclusion, each of them, partially misinformed in different ways, may come to a different answer. The vice is in false assumption that one is the intellectually perfect agent who can reach true conclusions easily based on insufficient information while one's critic is an arrogant and ignorant fool.

In short, I would replace the epistemology of disagreement with the epistemology of limited information - asserting that the latter, and not the former, is the true situation that the average voter faces. The question then becomes: What is a voter's epistemic responsibility given the fact that she is casting a substantially under-informed vote?

How about, to begin with, stop this presumption too often made that anybody who comes to a different conclusion is either corrupt or foolish, but is simply somebody else who, having a different set of limited information, came to a different conclusion.

Nationalism 011: Van Wietmarschen's Separation of Philosophy and State

Some people fear that political liberalism - a society built on the tolerance of many different groups - is incompatible with people actually believing in the teachings of those groups. Philosophical, moral, and religious doctrines seem incompatible with letting others live their lives as they choose. If something is wrong, then it is universally wrong. If God forbids something, it is forbidden to everybody. Indeed it is the case that if slavery is wrong, then it is wrong to tolerate enslavement. If the killing of a fetus is murder, it would still be wrong to allow murders in the name of political tolerance.

Han van Wietmarschen argues for a skeptical conclusion from political liberalism by combining it with certain principles found in the philosophy of disagreement. (See: van Wietmarschen, Han (2018). "Reasonable Citizens and Epistemic Peers: A Skeptical Problem for Political Liberalism." Journal of Political Philosophy, pp. 1-22.)

The philosophy of disagreement states that if you have a belief (e.g., that a god exists, or that no god exists), and if you live in a society where a reasonable person can disagree with you, then you ought to be somewhat skeptical about the beliefs that you hold.

This happens to be the principle that got me into philosophy when I was quite young. I had my beliefs about how to make a better world - as just about every teenager does. Yet, I was aware that there were some very intelligent people who had done a great deal of research and study who disagreed with me. I thought, "By what right do I declare for myself to have superior knowledge to those who have spent their lives studying this subject? Am I claiming that I need only a passing glance at the material and its arguments to make a judgment on the issue? That is an arrogant and presumptive attitude to take - one that can be founded only on a misplaced ego.

Let me present a few more details about this view of political liberalism.

The conception of political liberalism under consideration says that political matters may only be justified on the basis of “public considerations.” Public considerations are understood to be considerations that, according to van Wietmarschen, “all reasonable people can reasonably be expected to accept.” This means that considerations which reasonable people can reasonably expect to disagree about – called Non-public considerations – are not legitimate considerations for political matters. They are only relevant to an agent's private decisions.

Van Wietmarschen provides an example - the case of ensoulment. Ensoulment is an issue about which individuals can be expected to disagree. We must note that to be counted a private consideration requires more than disagreement about ensoulment. It requires rational disagreement - an admission on the part of those who hold one view that those who disagree with her are not necessarily irrational; they have their reasons (even if she believes those reasons must ultimately fail). This is a part of the idea of a respect for different points of view; the attitude, "Though I think you are mistaken, your mistakes are not unreasonable."

I want to take van Wietmarchen's ideas and apply them to another dispute - a dispute about slavery in 1860.

If a time traveller dropped van Wietmarchen's manuscript off on the doorstep of a northern abolitionist in 1860, it appears that the abolitionist would have to abandon his view that slavery was wrong - or, at least, that his views on the wrongness of slavery counted as any type of "public consideration". It is a private consideration only. Consequently, it is not a consideration on which any national political policies ought to be based.

We clearly see that the defense of slavery in 1860 involved prejudice and bigotry that caused people to draw unreasonable conclusions from evidence that was substantially made up. Their ideas on the "nature" of black people that allowed them to thrive in a condition of slavery had no basis on reason or evidence.

However, what is at issue here are the applications of the principles of disagreement we find in the field of epistemology. The abolitionist in 1860 does not have our perspective. What she knows is that there are certainly people supporting slavery who are at least as intelligent and as concerned with morality as the abolitionist herself. After all, virtually the whole population south of the Mason/Dixon line supported slavery at the time. There had to be a few counted among them at least as intelligent as she is, looking at the same evidence - perhaps even more evidence given their proximity to the slave society - who yet held that her own views were mistaken.

By the principles of epistemology, she ought to be skeptical of the idea that she is such an specimen of intellectual superiority that she got right what so many others who are at least as smart got wrong.

Then, by the principles of political liberalism, she ought to consider her attitudes on slavery to be "private considerations" - considerations of the type where reasonable people disagree and, as a result, ought not to be put forth as the reason for adopting or abandoning any political policies. Political liberalism - or, at least, the type of political liberalism that van Wietmarchen was concerned with - prohibits this.

This creates a problem. The pro-slavery advocate is in the same position. Skepticism on the legitimacy of slavery is skepticism on the illegitimacy of slavery. It provides no answer one way or another.

Or, to return to the issue of ensoulment, skepticism about ensoulment implies skepticism about non-ensoulment. One cannot argue from skepticism to, "Therefore the opponents of ensoulment win," any more than one can argue from skepticism about slavery to, "therefore the opponents of abolitionism win."

This means that political issues involving ensoulment or slavery cannot be settled until the people are brought into agreement. Yet, they are being forced into an agreement about a matter where, according to the best information at the time, reasonable people could disagree. This seems to be an impossible trap.

Indeed, it is an impossible trap.

The fact of the matter is that political disagreement includes private considerations. The assertion that people must leave what van Wietmarchen would call "private concerns" out of political disagreement is absurd. Part of our political disagreement involves fighting to persuade others that the position we take that it would label "private considerations" are fully relevant in determining what policies and procedures to adopt.

A part of our political debate is persuading others that our "private considerations" ought not to be private considerations at all.