The Open Mind VII – the One and the Many II

by A. Jay Adler on June 14, 2010
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One surgeon declares the operation a success, the other is still to close up, and we shall have to wait until the anesthesia wears off to find out how the patient is doing.

ShrinkWrapped and I have already reached some agreements, and may reach more. However general, abstract, or theoretical they may appear to some, they are a foundation for speaking more meaningfully in discussion on more specific matters. To isolate four separate of Shrink’s comments and join them:

Without any affective connection, reason alone will be insufficient to redress injustice….

A politics based primarily on Affective ties can easily lead to a society that tramples on the rights of those whose hold on our empathy are minimal….

Yet we also know that a culture organized around reason alone can become even more monstrous….

In reality it is impossible to divorce rationalism and affectivity.  We need a synthesis of the two.

I completely agree. It was offered among the comments that I was presenting a materialist ontology. I was not. The first critique to be offered of Marxism as a program – rather than as an analysis and critique of capitalism – is that there is no should in matter. I was making the empirical observation, indeed, that affective connection, specifically empathy, is a fundamental element in our sense of responsibility to each other. (I further argued that technology, though it can and does produce contrary results, has historically increased the sense and reality of proximity to one another, thus increasing the sense of connection, thus increasing empathic response, thus broadening the sense of responsibility.) Whether empathic feelings should be acted on is a further and different question. I stated that the benefits of action matter.

Now we have, materially, the means, but politically the ends may be varied, unpredictable, and consequential.

That empathy and reason both are necessary to satisfactory ethical behavior I think is empirically undeniable. SW offered the obvious examples. In support of empathy it must be observed that Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao did not enact evil because of an excess of empathy. Sociopathology is not the product of excessive empathy. Large numbers of human beings will never be able, or care, to ratiocinate at a high order level of reason on ethical issues. In some instances, they will be guided by religious instruction, but even then, and when they do reason to their fullest capability, they will be checked and balanced by natural empathic responses. So too are most people who do resort to sophisticated reasoning. Certainly, however, there is no area in which reason is more required to guide and even counter the uncalculated impulses of empathy than the political, in both social and international policy.

My intended focus in this regard, though, was not the empathy, but the sense of connection that develops from a wider range of empathic response, and, precisely, what our reasoned response politically should be to that sense of connection: what the proper relationship should be between the one and the many. I suggested by my introduction that the answer to that question might reasonably be different now from what it might have been in 1789.  And I framed the discussion not just in ethical terms:

“Proper” here might refer to ethics, logic, practicability.

In some of the commentary, there was a jumping ahead of the theoretical discussion to warrant that we should not provide in social policy for variously characterized deadbeats, losers, and system gamers. I agree. But this is reasoning backwards and skewing the premises. Let us posit that there are some who are genuinely in need, or a need that is common in nature to all. What should be the relationship of the many to those few, each of whom, individually, is a one, or to that common need? Should not those genuinely in need, or that common need, be addressed,  or not addressed, on the basis of some settled understanding of the proper relation of the one to the many – in which case, what is that understanding? Given that no system of any kind is perfect or even near so, are we willing to tolerate any level of imperfection in the application of social policy? We must first address whether that concern even matters to the discussion.

The purpose of this effort, as articulated in “The Reopened Mind,” is not to argue the usual disagreements, not to presume what the other believes, or to assert what generic liberals or conservatives believe, but to seek the areas of philosophical or ideational agreement that Shrink and I may have and in that process sharply delineated the points of departure into disagreement between him and me. These points of agreement and disagreement may reflect more generally on liberalism and conservatism. They may reflect only on us. We have found an agreement already, and there is another.

Shrink asserts that “fairness” is the “crux of the matter.” I think rather that the crux of the matter is precisely the subject I raised – the proper relation of the one to the many, which certainly does significantly involve the issue of fairness, but not that issue alone. That is the ethical question. There are also the questions I raised of logic and of practicability, of efficacy. One commenter offered that

The questions that drive our politics need not be moral. What is going to promote prosperity? And more than prosperity, what is going to help create a nice place to live? A healthy environment? A vibrant culture? A future for my children? Lower crime? What is going to promote happiness?

Shrink argued,

I do not think it is sustainable or fair for anyone to pay more than half of his or her income to support others.  My effective tax rate in the most liberal of states, New York, is at or close to 50%.  This seems to me to be a reasonable cut off point for the state’s ravenous appetite.  In reality, higher rates of taxation have been shown to be counterproductive since they encourage those who are able, to devote their efforts toward minimizing their taxes rather than toward more productive endeavors.

Once again, I agree, and in agreeing I don’t suggest that the effective tax rate should even approach 50%. To reaffirm Shrink’s observations in slightly different words, I think it both economically and psychologically necessary that the majority of the reward for human effort go to the person whose exertions reaped those rewards. The twentieth century is an encyclopedia of exposition on that subject.

Now, with some agreement established, I will try to advance the subject a bit further. I focused in the last post on the idea that the one and the many need not be the opposing terms that so many presume them. It is a complex subject, so I’ll offer just two easy, even obvious examples. One is free speech toleration of every kind of opinion, even the most extreme and objectionable. This is an example of apparently privileging the rights of the individual over that of the group, the one over the many, whose immediate sentiment might be to quash the objectionable view. However, most Americans, most of the time, acknowledge that society, and the polity as whole, is improved by granting this protection to an individual, who may in his view have no like. The political health is enhanced and the protection is distributed to every other individual. In this matter, I believe there is no opposition between the one and the many.

I make the same claim regarding a social program such as Social Security – intended very specifically not as whole, sustaining pension or as wealth redistribution, but as the barest minimum safety net. It has, in fact, over many decades helped prevent millions of people from falling into a depth of old age poverty and destitution that was once a fearful prospect. It has, supplementally, helped many retired people live above the minimum level, in just some very modest degree of comfort. Commonly entered into and supported by the many, this is a program that saves or enhances most individual lives while promoting a culture in which some minimal, decent level of care for one’s fellows is part of the fabric of community.

Now, the former example is not economic, while the latter is, and it is in that area where tension between the individual and the group is more concrete. Several commenters referred in different ways, with objection, to the notion of government’s coercing our assistance to others. The nature of this coerced assistance was unclear – whether it operated on an individual basis, where any of us will more directly experience a sense of compulsion, or via collective, government program. In either case, the concern was unrelated to anything I wrote, other than to raise a question, but the interesting subject to arise from the concern is that notion of coercion.

I said in my first post that government is a form of community. Community is either, merely, a concept, an amorphous sense of connection – relationship – to others, or it is organized: an organization. Organizations are administered, and administrations become bureaucratic, and one can easily come to define the organization in terms of its bureaucracy and thus abstract from it, and conceptually abandon, the community that was its originating force. So it is with large scale government, not only on the national level, but often at the state and even city level, at which citizens will frequently feel a sense of alienation from the daily levers of power and decision making. Yet this is the requirement that representative democracy makes of us – that we conceive and understand that government is both, at the same time, the administrative bureaucracy that daily runs it, and a manifestation of community created and periodically, democratically, redirected by us.

That government may be democratically constituted and empowered to make administrative decisions without our constant participatory direction does not render those decisions coercive. Indeed, they are fully democratic. Democratic government may make decisions and pursue policies to which very large minorities passionately object. In constitutionally and well-grounded democracies such as the United States, such policies are not coercive. They are the product of democratic processes. It is even so – it not being the purpose in representative democracies generally that government be directed by plebiscite – that a majority of the populace might object to a policy, and still it would not be coercive if not in contravention of law. With sufficient profound displeasure, the unpopular policy can lead to democratic change in the government. All this is part of the democratic process.

So it would follow that if sufficient support was garnered through the democratic process to enact – or not to enact – policies reflecting a commons sense of the relation between the one and the many, such policies, or non-policies, would be neither coercive nor repressive, but an expression of the democratic will. Here, then, a disagreement. When Shrink writes that

the state…is based on consensus coercion and force

I believe he prejudices the discussion. When a group chooses by consensus to be governed by majority rule (which is implicit in the acceptance of the democratic social contract), the minority, as well as would the majority, distorts reality through the manipulations of language if it describes its governance as coercion. To abide by the terms of a contract is not to be subjected to coercive force as those terms are normally understood.

When Shrink states

Ultimately, although I believe the Conservative position that elevates the individual above the community is theoretically preferable to the Liberal position which privileges the community, either side taken to extremes is problematic

I have three reactions. The first is that he misrepresents the liberal position. The second is that given his terms, my bottom line is to agree with him, yet, third, I continue to believe that in many instances the opposition is a false one.

Finally, I note a couple of profound disagreements, profound, I think, because their subjects range far afield from the terrain on which some agreement was discovered. Shrink refers to me as a “principled Liberal.” I understand that he means this, personally, as a compliment, and I personally appreciate it, as I believe him, certainly, to be principled, but it is otherwise objectionable because the modification of liberal implies the notability of the modification, with the baseline being something other than “principled.”

More significantly, Shrink writes

Obama’s malefic failure has been to destabilize that consensus.  He has not attempted to manage from the center, shifting the polity slightly further to the Left.  He has overtly attempted to govern form the far Left, abandoning traditional consensus positions and alienating more and more Americans by the day.

This throws us back into our very distant corners, where I will state that the only thing malefic in Obama’s presidency has been the reaction to it by his opponents. To anyone anywhere actually on the Left, the description of Obama as governing from the far Left is preposterous. Here it is like staring from the earth at a star three light years in the distance and another ten. From the earth, the Right, they seem very much the same distance away in the sky. The actual far Left is critical of Obama on multiple fronts, from his continuation of so many of Bush imperialistic war policies, to his significant retreats from far Left aims in health care reform, to his cooperative relationship with big banks and advocates of neoliberal economics and his excessive realism, in far Left eyes, on human rights issues. To anyone anywhere on the Left, Obama’s policies are mainstream liberal, with a foreign policy more hawkish than many mainstream liberals would prefer. And, of course, much of what Shrink describes as “traditional consensus” positions now were mainstream liberal positions in the past that at the time were declared by the Right to be harbingers of the socialism to come.

But then we knew these were not subjects on which we would agree. We have found agreement elsewhere, though, and maybe we can build on it to the departure points of our principled disagreements.


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