Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Justice vs. Force

From poll answers provided by Allen Wood, a Stanford philosophy professor and leading Kant scholar:

My real position could be accurately described as 'anti-hyperinegalitarianism'. But given the obscene inequalities we have in the actual world, this is close to egalitarianism,

Um . . . well, the Ultimate Philosophical Retort to this more or less academic-mainstream view is, "How are the inequalities obscene?"

One simple but fundamental error in current-day mainstream moral and political philosophy (that is, unless A. John Simmons represents some kind of silent libertarian mainstream, but I kind of doubt it) is the confusion of matters of justice with matters of what rights people have. Rawls's Theory of Justice is focused almost exclusively with how coercive institutions ought to deal with questions of both liberty and equality. The stolen assumption here is that institutions ought to be coercive at all.

Okay, let's imagine a eudaemonistic culture. Eudaemonism is concerned with self-actualization and the conditions required for such. Those conditions are, first and foremost, the agent's own moral dispositions, and then things like good upbringing and education, a minimally supportive culture, having basic needs fulfilled and . . . freedom (to exercise one's capacities, as a necessary constitutive element of eudaemonia). Equality hardly enters into the picture at all except in minimal legal terms (i.e., equality under the law). But take the core concern here that a left-liberal might share: the importance of fulfilling the conditions under which people can flourish. Ensuring that basic needs are met is part of that moral vision. So let's just posit this plausible assumption: a eudaemonistic culture is one in which people are concerned that the basic needs of people are met.

Now, where is force supposed to enter this picture? If a theory of "social" justice is about "what human beings owe to one another" as a matter of basic human decency, that's all fine and good. How does that translate into a prescription that people or a polity engage in force to see to it that these obligations are fulfilled? It's a complete non sequitur.

The basic rational principle of political governance is that it secures logically prior rights, i.e., that it secures the conditions of freedom under which people can flourish. Protecting freedom is the only proper concern of government. Matters of "obscene" inequalities are a moral concern that people in non-coercive organizations have every right (and duty, if we're really dealing with moral obscenity) to address. The paradigm that absolutely has to be tossed out here, however, is the force-is-acceptable paradigm. It's an age-old paradigm used and applied across the ages where human beings as a species hadn't reached a high-enough stage of enlightenment to recognize the evil of using force against rational beings.

(As far as moral obscenity goes, let's not buy into the floating, irrational egalitarian notion that the social problem to be concerned with is inequality per se. There is no rational moral principle underlying any such concern. As some version of eudaemonistic ethics is the only rational underpinning for any social-political ethics, the proper focus of concern here is not inequality but rather whether the requisite conditions for self-actualization have been fulfilled. Equality or inequality plays no significant role in this analysis. To decry, say, starvation in the Third World as a moral obscenity is not to decry it on grounds of inequality. I do keep in mind Prof. Wood's hedge here; maybe he's not advancing his concern for moral obscenity on such irrational grounds as egalitarianism, but rather on grounds having to do with meeting basic conditions for self-actualization in light of current disparities that supposedly can [only?] be addressed through political means.)

What we should seriously consider as philosophers is whether the coercive state is anathema to (eudaemonistic) moral values, even and perhaps especially including the socially-oriented concern that the basic conditions for self-actualization are met. To say that good people ought to do certain things or provide such-and-such conditions for one another as a matter of justice, is not to say that the coercive state is the means by which people get (i.e., make, through force) one another to respect the demands of justice.

My "force is evil" view might be labeled or lumped into the cluster of views known as "philosophical anarchism." If that means, simply, that people ought not to use force against one another, then "philosophical anarchism" is the only acceptable social-political position and, frankly, the only one that common-sense analysis leads to. The basic social principle I endorse is that no one has the right to initiate physical force against anyone else, and that any social institution must respect individual rights; a social institution calling itself government isn't exempt from such a requirement. Government, like any other social institution, should be based only on the consent of the participants involved.

The scheme of voluntary communities envisioned by Nozick in "A Framework for Utopia" (the last chapter of Anarchy, State, and Utopia) is much like what I have in mind. Unlike Nozick, however, I have a broader moral vision to offer which makes a plausible road to "utopia" so much as realistically possible: a society in which eudaemonistic values are widespread is a society in which (a) people tend to be a lot more appreciative of the requirements of self-actualization and are therefore more empathetic and peaceful and (b) a society where the institution of government becomes (perhaps radically) transformed from government as we know it today.

Suppose, for instance, that the mindset that made "Galt's Gulch" possible is so widespread, and the success of such a model so compelling, that government functions amount to the functions performed by Judge Narragansett in the valley. Ayn Rand firmly denied that she was an anarchist, but the model of governance entailed by widespread acceptance and application of her moral ideals meets the social conditions demanded by the self-styled anarchists (excepting perhaps the left-anarchists, unless they really wouldn't mind the productive geniuses going off to form their own capitalistic societies, in which case the left-anarchists' desire for peace exceeds their desire to interfere with capitalist acts amongst consenting adults). The essential aspect of government in Rand's definition is the exclusive power to enforce laws in a defined geographical area, as a necessary prerequisite to the Rule of Law. That sounds consistent with the requirement that all governments must be based entirely on the consent of the governed and where the model of governance is not unlike the minimalistic dispute-resolution functions provided by an effective legal apparatus as was the case in the Gulch.

Doesn't this vision of a good society offer a lot more to inspire people than a force-based quasi-egalitarian vision does?

One thing entailed in this vision is that politics as we know it (and politicians as we know them) can be a thing of the past. No longer would we entrust our concerns about justice (or other things) to the fucking sociopathic narcissists running governments these days. No longer would we entrust these narcissists with coercive powers over our activities. How we interact with one another would no longer be a matter of how to employ force but how to get on with the task of flourishing (which includes taking an interest in the flourishing of others). Provisions of welfare goods thereby would become, properly, a matter of ethics rather than politics. Sounds to me that Ayn Rand identified the issues here at a greater level of fundamentality than Rawls did, ergo Rand > Rawls. Duh.

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