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".

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Do secrets make you stupid?

Here's an interesting thought from Daniel Ellsberg on how having access to top-secret information affects a person's thinking. To sum it up, it becomes impossible to really listen to (and learn from) anyone who lacks access to the same information, and such "fools" become nothing more than objects to be manipulated. Great.

Tip: Good discussion at BHL on Obama.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

No rule of law: when everyone has committed a crime

I am very dissapointed by Carnegie Mellon's response to the brouhaha over the "half-naked pope" costume worn by one of their art students in a parade. The student has been charged by the campus cops with indecent exposure. The authorities claim that this is simply a matter of violating a local ordinance, and not about the subject of this woman's performance. For good measure, they also charged a man who got naked as part of a non-political performance in the same parade.

My strong suspicion is that this is a political prosecution, orchestrated by the school's administration in order to placate a bunch of conservative rabble-rousers. There's also the fact that the Catholic Church has a lot of influence in Pittsburgh; some of this influence comes from their ownership of a lot of land in CMU's neighborhood, which gives them influence over local zoning ordinances and would allow them to refuse to sell said land that CMU might want for future expansion.

There are two lines of evidence for my suspicion that this is not simple law-enforcement. First, it seemed to take a long time for the police to charge this woman. I'm sure that cops were present during this parade, and they could have issued her a warning or citation on-the-spot. The fact that they did not immediately issue a warning suggests that nudity is tolerated under these circumstances. 

My second line of evidence that this is a political prosecution comes from various reports that nudity has traditionally been tolerated (if not encouraged) at these parades. I read this claim in the comments section of an article posted at the website of the CMU student newspaper, the Tartan when this all started. I followed up by looking at the official promotional material for this parade. Notably, the pictures from the 2013 parade have been removed from Flickr. However, the 2012 parade pics are still available. They make it clear that the parade is typically pretty raunchy (facebook shows a subset of the more tame photos). There are even a couple of pictures showing exposed buttocks (and ass crack), which falls foul of most indecency ordinances that I've looked at. For the sake of documentation, I'm going to repost the picture here, though I must warn you that it isn't pretty (original):
To top it off, the School's Facebook account even promoted the event by saying "last year got a little out of hand... we expect nothing less this time around." When your combine that attitude with the student's report that she was encouraged to be politically provocative, I arrive at the sad conclusion that she is being scapegoated as part of a conflict between the Arts faculty's impulse to be provocative, and the university administration's impulse to constantly expand the influence of the institution. This has made a mockery of the law, and once again shown how arbitrary law-enforcement can be... to the point that there is no law, just power plays.

The only good thing about this is a sort of Streisand effect -- where the Church has brought attention to it's efforts to silence dissent and caused me to question whether "sacred" is a bad word, and CMU has exposed it's politicization. This may even stoke a bit of a "free speech movement" on a campus that is historically apolitical and has a high rating from FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).

Some other thoughts:
Boy @ the window

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Is nothing sacred?

The Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh recently insisted that everyone should respect sacred symbols (e.g. the cross). My response: really?

I feel like this is an issue that philosophers should have bickered over for a few centuries by now, so I'm disappointed that I cannot easily find a summary of the arguments against sacred symbols. I recall the essay "against moralism", but it's not addressing this exact point. There are also plenty of arguments against nationalism, which is just one context for sacred symbols. Who has made the general argument against sacred symbols?

The best I could find was an essay called "Is nothing Sacred" attributed to Salman Rushdie, in which he defends the value of the novel. There is one paragraph that gets to the point:
No, nothing is sacred in and of itself.... Ideas, texts, even people can be made sacred - the word is from the Latin sacrare, "to set apart as holy" - but even though such entities, once their sacredness is established, seek to proclaim and to preserve their own absoluteness, their inviolability, the act of making sacred is in truth an event in history. It is the product of the many and complex pressures of the time in which the act occurs. And events in history must always be subject to questioning, deconstruction, even to declarations of their obsolescence. To revere the sacred unquestioningly is to be paralyzed by it. The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas Uncertainty, Progress, Change - into crimes.
That's a good start. Of course, it's detached from the arguments for sacredness, so it has limited value. But it's enough to demonstrate that respect for the sacred is not a self-evident good.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Catholic Church is a political organization

There's been a bit of a fuss in Pittsburgh over a public art performance in which a CMU student dressed up as the pope and handed out condoms -- while showing off her cross-shaped pubic hair. It took a couple of days, but eventually someone complained: first the local bishop, and then a bunch of rabble-rouses across the nation (such as the "Catholic League").

The bishop seems to be the most articulate and reasonable among these complainers. He apparently is primarily concerned with the use of the cross in this demonstration, and with an increasing disregard for "the sacred". My inclination is to respond "fuck the sacred". In my experience, "the sacred" is a ploy that some people use to impose themselves on others, and I am quite happy to say that either everything is sacred, or nothing is. (These opinions have not received extensive thought, so I'd love to discuss them). Furthermore, if a powerful person uses a sacred symbol to reinforce his authority, then he is the one who politicized it and invited sacrilege.

The more obnoxious complaints are of the "victimized American Christian" variety... as if American Christians are an oppressed class. Catholics may have some claim to special consideration in America, since they were historically marginalized (particularly if they migrated from English-occupied Ireland), but as a group, Catholics have made a pretty solid transition into the establishment. For instance, they are over-represented in Congress (31%), and it's been about 50 years since the USA had it's first Catholic President. Given this influence, I'm don't give serious attention to superficial claims that Catholics are being treated unfairly. That's not to say that Catholics aren't subject to hate crimes (like every other group), but only that there is no reason to assume that any mockery of Catholicism represents anti-Catholic bigotry and likewise that our society doesn't need organizations that are specifically dedicated to protecting them (such as the "anti-defamation" Catholic League, which was founded after Kennedy's presidency).

So anyway, as is common for American Christians who deny their privilege, these offended Catholics are claiming that a major university (i.e. liberals) would not tolerate mockery of other religious figures. My first counter-example would be the Iranian Ayatollah's, and I'd follow up with the King/Queen of England (head of the Anglican church), Pat Robertson, and the generic character of a revival tent-preacher or faith-healer. Granted, most of these are Christians, but there's a good reason for that -- only Christian religious leaders have substantial influence in our society. My remaining counter-example is a political leader, but so is the Pope.

The Pope is not only is influential, but he heads an explicitly political organization. As such, he is fair game for criticism and mockery. While all religious institutions have political impact, this passive political influence is not enough for the Catholic Church. Rather than just teaching that "abortion is evil" and then allowing laymen to take up the political battles, Church leaders insist on getting directly involved with organization of political campaigns and lobbying of politicians. For instance, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops takes positions on state policies that are not directly relevant to the church (e.g. access to emergency contraceptives), and many bishops use their religious authority to pressure state officials to change public policy (e.g. by denying communion to supporters of abortion rights).

While the political activities of the Catholic Church in the USA are not very intense, the church can  be downright oppressive in countries where it is dominant. The pressure that they expert on legislators is much more intense in parts of Latin America, both because exclusion from the Church has a much greater impact and because the Church strives to influence a wider range of topics. Furthermore, there are several countries where the Catholic Church receives special privileges and powers (such as subsidies in many countries).

All in all, the Pope is a political leader, therefore he has opened himself up to a range of attacks that would normally be considered inappropriate if targeted at catholic laymen or a low-key religious leader.