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.