Thursday, March 01, 2007

On justifying politics, part one

This is part one because I haven't had the time or energy to finish it. I could just not post it but it's already very long. It's my approach to political theory (or an approach of mine, not the only one I could have taken or do take). I am trying to think about something incredibly difficult: why one should have one or another politics. This is not a consideration of why one does or what might lead one to have some politics or other, but a deeper question: how one justifies political beliefs.

The reason I find this a difficult question is that my political beliefs are grounded in axioms that I take to be fundamental (and true) but difficult to substantiate. I find it a lot easier to defend an extreme right position. This is because I take the position that a "principle" is not simply an axiom handed down by Jeebus or Gahd, but is something that must be grounded and justifiable. And it's a lot easier to argue "life is short so grab all you can" than "life is short for everybody so share so that everyone has a decent go at it".

Anyway, this is how I began writing about it. The rest might follow, but you know how it is.


How can politics be justified? It seems a simple question. We must have politics, because politics is just the means of distributing power among communities (and also the means of distributing resources -- although economics can be considered the science of distributing resources, choices about how to distribute them are political choices -- and because power is in most cases power over resources (particularly so if one considers that a person's productive capacity is a resource like any other), it is easy to see that politics boils down to power (Marxists point out that politics is about class struggle, but what is a class struggle if it is not a struggle over power -- in particular the power to distribute resources? Marx described history as primarily economic, but taking a deeper view of what politics is would have led him to describe it as primarily political)). And surely it is easy to argue for one or another political choice?

But I am asking a deeper, much more difficult question. How can you choose which politics to have? (I am leaving aside at this point that most people do not choose; they take up the politics of their father, their peers, someone they admire. We are concerned here only with people who think. For reasons that should quickly become apparent, those who base their politics on religious principles are also excluded: not because I question the validity of their politics, but because they have a ready answer to the question I'm asking.)

Most philosophers, when describing the world, tend to make narrow, universal statements. The world is like this or that. But the world is not like that, as is clear if we simply look at it. It's more often like these, rather chaotic and difficult to understand, complex. Philosophers -- and political sciences -- boil the world down into simple choices, yet the factors that feed into those choices are not few or simple.

I do not think the world can be understood by simple axioms (except for one that seems clear, which I'll talk about), and creating a politics of principle is very difficult because a set of principles that would properly fit a complex world would be very large and inconsistent, if not impossible. (A difficulty for any ideologue is that the "beliefs" that they hold will clash with one another, simply because what they feel is right in one situation will not be right in another; or disastrously, a solution for one problem will be applied to another because they seem similar enough, but the outcome will be horribly distorted. Some communist solutions to market problems in Eastern Europe spring to mind. While the underlying principle may have been sound, the problems that were solved were defined too narrowly (so that the solutions could actually fit). Not that the right does any better -- far from it! Its relentless definition of all problems in purely monetary terms leads to solutions that are simply inhuman.)

To illustrate why I think there is a problem, I'll take a "principle" and see how it works out. I doubt many people who read this would disagree that this is a sound principle but I do think it is easy to argue that it is entirely baseless. "It is bad to kill human beings."

Now ask why. First of all, we must work out who it is bad for. Clearly, in most cases, we'd consider it bad for the person killed. But this cannot always be true. My granddad had lung cancer. It was terrible and he wanted to die. He expressed the wish. If I had killed him -- and if I could have, I would have -- it would not have been bad for him. Or would it? You could take an absolute line that being alive is always and in every case better than being dead. I think that this line falls down very quickly with any consideration of quality of life but it's a conceivable position. Similarly, if you believe that death is not final, it's possible that being dead might be superior to being alive anyway. A friend of mine at college used to say that he could not wait to die because he would be going to heaven. (As a Catholic, he could not countenance suicide, nor arranging to be killed, which would be the same sin.) If you believe that someone you kill will be rewarded with eternal bliss, how is there a moral wrong in killing them? To make it morally wrong, killing people must be absolutely wrong. I do not know how it can be.

Perhaps it is bad for the killer. Absent religious bads -- that it is sinful or that God will punish you for it -- what bad does it bring the killer? Had I killed my granddad, I would no doubt have felt guilty, even though I considered it the right thing to do. (Curiously, I did not feel the doctor who finally upped the morphine to do the deed had done anything wrong, and did not feel he or she should bear any guilt.) But a feeling of guilt is not a principle. (The point of thinking about this is to ask whether one can distinguish our basing of things in feelings from a possible basis in principle. If the answer is no, morality -- and politics -- becomes something entirely relative, negotiable and nonuniversal.) It is of course bad for the killer if they are caught and punished, but I am sure that the principle does not mean it is bad to kill people if you get caught for it. Principles are not usually so realist!

Generally, we will base the principle that it is wrong to kill someone on the principle that it is wrong to harm others. This resolves our problem with mercy killings and would, I think, even allow us to martyr those who gain more from being dead. But that principle is no sounder than the one we are basing on it.

Why should we not harm each other? One might appeal to the Kantian golden rule: we should do to others as we wish to be done by. The problem Kant had, and anyone else who claims this is a bedrock for a moral code has, is that the why is too hard to provide. I don't want others to steal from me, but why should that make me not steal? Yes, it would be bad if everyone stole. But must I consider myself as a unit in "everyone"? True, it is a poor outcome if everyone refuses to make that consideration, but that is their problem, isn't it? If the principle were "you should not harm others if you think everyone will follow suit", then it seems more sensible. It makes it a lot less wishy-washy and more pragmatic. So far as I understand it, that is the argument for it. (Not Kant's argument, which was a bit more difficult.) We have a responsibility to hold our side of the moral bargain.

Do we though? Why should I look out for you and what you do or don't do? You can argue that I have moral responsibility for myself, and for my own choices, but why should I take responsibility for yours? If I steal, that is my choice. If you steal, that is yours.

I understand the reasoning. If we all did the bad thing, it would be horrible for all (including me). So we should individually not do the bad thing, and it will not be horrible for all (including me). Fine. But so long as you all do the right thing, it won't be horrible for me. (I'm aware that the freeloader objection to universal morality has been discussed a great deal in philosophical and quasi-philosophical literature, but I'm not aware of anyone who has made a convincing argument, without depending on some innate sense of decency, against the freeloader.) Presumably, there is some tipping point, at which the number of people doing the bad thing makes it horrible for all, but am I the person at the tipping point? Must I consider myself to be that person? I think this is the only even partly strong argument for this kind of golden rule.

Those who have read Kant will recognise that I do not allow his assertion that hypothetical imperatives cannot be the bases of morals. I do not believe he or anyone else has made a strong argument why not -- and to the contrary philosophers such as Camus have made it clear that rather than personal imperatives' needing to be constructed from categorical imperatives, one must work the other way round -- generalising from what seems right to me to what seems right. Indeed, I'm suggesting that Kant is precisely wrong. I can say that a thing is wrong for you and not wrong for me. There is no basis for saying I cannot. Yes, this makes absolute moral prescription impossible, but without God, the basis for believing morality is universal is not strong. How can we say "this is the way everyone should be"? This is to reduce moral strictures to the same level as breathing, or having two arms, or being possessed of veins and arteries. These are things a human consists in. Arguing that morality is universal just because we are humans is to say that it is something we necessarily consist in.

I do think there is potential in this line of thought though. But it cannot be established by handwaving. One would need to show that human beings simply could not live together (and by extension could not survive to reproduce) if they did not have at least this or that moral understanding. But showing that would be difficult, if not impossible, because human beings have got along in all sorts of conditions, and survived in all sorts of surroundings. What confuses thinking in these areas is that one can say, but this thing has been considered wrong in every structure we have built. However, the structures we have built have generally been understood as serving us, protecting us (which is why they have had our support). So they are not founded on principles like "you should not kill anybody" but on principles like "no one should be permitted to kill me". The law against murder might be seen as a moral prescription against doing a wrong; but it can equally be seen as a protection of the individual. This obviously creates a confusion over what laws do, what they are for, so that we have legal codes that are motivated by both ends, although more clearly the latter prevails. (Most law concerns property, after all, and is framed in terms of protecting your right to enjoyment of it, rather than prescribing that I should not infringe on it.)

I will not discuss in this context whether one should not kill humans out of fellow feeling. This is the beginning point for some critiques of meat-eating. We do not kill humans because they are humans, but this creates an artificial distinction between humans and animals. Which is true, but the philosophers who make this argument do not explain why one cannot equally ask why, rather than shifting the distinction so that it now stands between animal and vegetable, one cannot simply narrow it so it does not include all humans. After all, they are allowing that there is a distinction between entities whose life we can end and those whose life we cannot. I think this whole argument is fraught with difficulty. The distinction is made because animals have "feelings" (like humans -- which is why they need to be included with us in the not-killable group) and plants do not. However, that killing things with feelings is a bad thing is taken as axiomatic rather than given any deeper explanation.

Making this argument opens up a dangerous avenue, of course. If the distinction between human and animal is taken to be arbitrary, but that "having feelings" is not an absolute basis for making a new distinction, one allows that different types of human may be killable for us. Later in this post (or in part two, if I don't make it that far in this post), I will discuss this idea, because it is central to extreme right philosophy. (And central to this post, because I am not arguing that politics has to be amoral -- far from it -- but that it must be based on moral choices even if they are not well founded.)


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