Saturday, May 18, 2013

The "moral" vs "rational" basis of political authority

A few weeks ago, I blogged about my interest in Michael Heumer's new book The Problems of Political Authority. A comment from rulingclass emphasized the difference between the "moral" arguments for political authority and the "rational" arguments, noting that a rationalist argument will be seen as irrelevant to those who focus on the moral basis of political authority. I am not sure exactly what Heumer's arguments focus on -- the book is now sitting on my nightstand, awaiting my attention (and competing with Gulag: a history as my next read).

Before reading the book, I wanted to get a better sense of the distinction that rulingclass made. In his comment, rulingclass equated "moral" with "communitarian" and "rational" with "liberal". He followed by asserting that most people/Americans are communitarian rather than liberal, so the "rationalist" arguments (often favored by liberal academic philosophers) are not persuasive in public discourse.

I'm going to rephrase these comments in my own words (and connect them to the work of others), hoping that rulingclass, will tell me if I'm interpreting him correctly. I consider "moral" arguments for political authority to be those asserting that submission to authority is intrinsically good, whereas the "rationalist" arguments emphasize how submission to authority enables us to achieve pre-existing goals. Having that interpretation, I came across an essay "Man the Political Animal", in which the author (Michael Hannon) argued that political community is an intrinsic good rather than an instrumental good. I think this is the same distinction being made by rulingclass, but I like these terms better than "moral" and "rational", so I will use them for the rest of this post.

When rulingclass first mentioned that most Americans have a "moral" view of political authority, I contemplated exactly how that would manifest. I figured that for conservatives, the authority would essentially be patriarchal in nature -- that we obey the state for the same reason we obey our parents/father; while for progressives, this would be the authority of the community. However, Hannon's essay (in a conservative publication) focuses on the authority of the community, not parents. Of course, in a republic (unlike a monarchy), state authority cannot really be conceived as a manifestation of patriarchy. Conservative American patriarchy is limited to the family, and the authority structure binding households is more egalitarian. This authority can be idealized as arising from a union of heads-of-households who coordinate their actions to establish more effective governance over the other members of their respective households.  This ideal could account for Lackoff's "strict father" perception of governance. I'm not sure how one can philosophically arrive at the "nurturant parent" perception of government that Lackoff attributes to the American center-left, but it clearly depicts political authority as an extension of an intimate and instinctual authority relationship, not some sort of contract or engineered relationship.

I am put into a bit of a bind by the acknowledgement that most Americans are communitarian and see political authority as an intrinsic good. For as long as I can remember, I have viewed politics as a problem of coordinating individuals for their mutual good. When people use moralist assertions to justify policy (e.g. drugs must be prohibited because their use is wrong), I clench my teeth and disengage from discussion with them -- I basically write them off as dangerous fanatics. The problem is that most people think like this, even if they are not as adamant in their opinion. So how to discuss politics with these people?

One approach is to target the authoritarianism in culture, whether by developing non-authoritarian methods of child-rearing and education, or attacking authoritarian institutions and ideologies that are not blatantly political. This sometimes conflicts with the political libertarian impulse to target political authority in isolation and profess that personal beliefs and voluntary institutions are separate from the political movement (I suppose this is rehashing the thick/thin debate).

The other approach is to dissect political authority and demonstrate that it is incompatible with their primary moral goals. For instance, during the Cato Unbound discussion of Anthony de Jasay's ideas (which I've only skimmed), one of the authors responds that "[The welfare state] reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans.” When the standard attitude is that state policies should "try" to achieve fairness norms, the proper libertarian response is to argue that the state is antithetical to such norms (in contrast to the elitist response that often masquerades as libertarian). Here we see how the "instrumental" view of political authority often has a strong moral component; when a state policy or power is not being justified on the grounds that it promotes fairness, it is being justified as a way to prevent free-riding. If we show that the state creates a free-rider problem (i.e. rent-seeking) and facilitates exploitation of the poor, then we have an argument that turns the intrinsic good of political authority against other fundamental values that people may give priority to. Through it all, I think the problem is that most people view the state as an extension of "us", rather than as an exploitative "them". The trick is to retain a notion of "us" (allowing for secession) while rejecting authority relationships that can be corrupted by "them".


Anonymous said...

Good essay. And yes it is a correct interpretation.

The communitarian(or "intrinsic") formulation more or less holds that humans must be political animals in order to be moral. Politics(or the political community) is central to the orientation of humans around what it means to be moral or what justice is supposed to entail. In the western tradition, this view is generally associated with the ancient greeks. In the more recent era, this view finds its chief proponent in Hegel.

The liberal(or "instrumental") view holds the State to be an artificial construct apart from the moral community used only by the latter as a means to secure some end as divined by said community. This is the instrument of the social contract. For Locke, the end of the moral community is property. For Hobbes, it's security. For Rawls, it's primary goods(signifying the moral community is very risk adverse). However, the liberal methodology of the moral community is the rational calculation of the individual agent. The moral community is the "State of Nature."

I just read "Man the Political Animal." A central point the author is making is that the liberal model of the State has failed to limit its scope . Hence "limited government" may require a more intrinsic foundation than liberal enlightenment one. Interestingly, de Jasay, in his demolition of the rational basis for "constrained government," suggests that "taboos" are perhaps the only thing that can limit the State(e.g, "torture" used to be a taboo. Now it is no longer one and hence it has been given a legal justification). This implies a certain nod to an intrinsic foundation. But for de Jasay, this is an observation in passing, not an argument. de Jasay would hold that the liberal enlightenment "presumption of liberty" is an epistemological necessity for science and the scientific method(science is a core component of the western tradition).

The fundamental weakness of communitarianism is that it is too conservative. Empirically, the "security state" dismisses the claim that the State is us. As you pointed out in your last post, "Do Secrets make you Stupid," the security state creates caste hierarchical stratification of information/secrets privilege. The orientation of the security state ends up revolving around the principle that human agency itself is a threat. But this is just part of a bigger problem for communitarianism. The world's political institutions are by and large liberal. And these institutions inexorable centralize around political economy to the extent that States begin to resemble political economic firms. The communitarian archetype is line with the more ancient modest version of the city State. But communitarianism's strict adherence to teological orthodoxy("the progress of history and the state") binds them too tightly to the political status quo(and to defend it). To replace liberal institutionalism with with something more apropos to political structure of the "city-state" would require moral agents operating outside of the current political community consensus. But this type of moral agency is condemned/rejected by communitarians. The intrinsic conservatism of communitarianism renders the communitarian version of the political animal null and void.

Anonymous said...

NOTE: length restrictions prevented me from publishing my full comment. The last paragraph below is being carried over.

Finally, in terms of human nature, my observation is that it is conflicted, not settled one way or another towards authority or liberty. There is no doubt great evidence of a moral race to prohibition, but always in its wake rises the inevitable black market. When States fail, off-the-books economic activity soars. In the United States, we officially glorify institutions of authority, but in our entertainment, people generally only pay to see the celebration of the criminal, the outlaw, and the individualist rebel operating on long odds. People will simultaneously cheer the authoritarianism in Boston while paying in droves to cheer the symbolic military defeat of the same empire in something like Avatar.


Anonymous said...

A final commentary on what I wrote above. An immediate interpretation is that communitarians get the last laugh on politics and libertarians get the last laugh on culture. But I would say no one laughs in the end.

Communitarianism's intrinsic conservatism forces it to legitimize a security state as being the natural progression of human flourishing and morality. The convergence of communitarian politics and libertarian culture gives us the "Pink Police State," a condition which readily maximizes the discretionary, arbitrary authority of the State in every aspect of human life. Sadly, I think way too many "libertarians" buy into the teology of "the progress of history" and will legitimize this "pink police state" as a libertarian progress.

In the end, I continue to maintain that politically, libertarianism reduces to nothing more than a positive theory of dystopia.

Ricketson said...

thanks for the feedback.