Sunday, 25 February 2018

Politics and the Good Life

Why is it that when dealing with certain topics, namely political topics, arguments rarely come to any sort of satisfying conclusion? One possibility is that there is no reason or truth in matters like these; it is all just a matter of taste, sentiment, or personal opinion. Another possibility is that some people are just plain irrational and can't be convinced by good arguments. Both of these suggestions contain some small granule of truth, but generally, are too radical to serve as general explanations. We must conclude that the problem lies elsewhere.

For what it's worth, this problem of miscommunication is encountered even when political science professors and politicians are having high-level debates. And to make things worse, this problem does not seem to be encountered in other realms of life. Let's take a non-political example. Suppose I am trying to fix a door, and my friend and I are having a debate about how to properly do so. I think the door won't shut because the wood has warped and needs to be cut, while my friend thinks that the door's hinges are loose and the screws need to be tightened. We both have access to all the same information, we can both examine the other's proposed solution, and ultimately, we can try both solutions and see which one accomplished the goal.

Now let's look at a political example. Let's use gun violence, since that has been in the news lately. In this example, much like the door example, all parties have access to the relevant information (statistics, polls, and quantitative information), all the parties have access to historical attempts to solve the problem, and all the parties can look at recent attempts in our own society to curb the problem. But what is the difference? Obviously the level of complexity is different, but more importantly, the desired outcome is different. This fact is of the utmost importance and often overlooked. A libertarian, an authoritarian Catholic, and a Marxist all have very different visions of a good society, which entails different relationships to firearms, and most of those visions aren't clearly expressed when those people enter into a discussion.

Here is a very common example we have all seen. News stories that frequently make the social media circuit imply that the increased levels of crime, abuse, negligence, and poor-decision making found among the poor and destitute are explained by the more foundational economic inequality. Just to be clear, let me restate that, for the articles in question rarely make this assumption clear and explicit. It is often assumed in our society that a whole host of seemingly unrelated problems are explained by economic inequality. This may be true, although it seems outright false to me, and more importantly, the stories that typically push this narrative assume it without arguing for it. The problem is that this premise remains assumed in most modern political discourse, and so it is rarely ever discussed. The idea that crime, sexism, violence and other social ills follow from economic inequality is explicitly based on the ideas of Karl Marx, who thought that all of history moved in a linear way towards economic equality and that the prime mechanism of this movement was struggle between the different social classes. In turn, these ideas themselves are based on the conception of the human being as a primarily economic being.

What is almost always at issue in these sorts of political debates is not some mundane fact of how to allocate resources, but the much deeper problem of what constitutes a good life and what the philosophical criteria are for one deserving resources from the state. One of the problems is that in the political marketplace we typically only find three models of a good life presented to us. The first, and I would say increasingly popular model, of a good life is the one I just touched upon, that of economic equality. Marxists and progressive liberals tend to endorse this model, seeing many human problems arising from the economic sector. If this is true, then it would make sense that the goal of the state and of the majority of our domestic political action to be geared towards fixing the fundamental economic problem. A second model of the good life is based upon personal freedom. This model tends to be endorsed by both classical liberals and libertarians. This model sees happiness and flourishing as an essentially private affair, recognizing that people have different goals and standards, and that the best way to allow one to flourish is to get out of their way. By giving people the freedom to pursue what they desire, and by giving them the option to fail with no safety-net, the personal freedom model puts the burden solely in the individual to make the most of their life, whatever that may practically entail. As political pundits used to be fond of saying, libertarians support freedom of opportunity, while proponents of the first model support freedom of outcome. The third major model we encounter is based upon the primacy of morality, and is typically supported by Southern Republicans and activist Protestants. This model, it should be noted is rather skewed in contemporary culture. It is skewed for two reasons, 1) many political forces use the cover of the “moral majority” while actually pursuing ends totally foreign to it, and 2) the morals in question are interpreted in very particular sort of way, namely in the light of fundamentalist protestant Christianity. Be that as it may, this third model is prevalent, and very old. According to this model, what is most important in determining the fate of a society is virtue and vice. If a community has good people, morally speaking, it won't stand for crime and violence, nor will it let its members starve on the streets. Thus, a government should promote morality as its highest aim. As a quick aside, in recent years, a fourth model has come on to the scene. This model cares about community solidarity, tradition, and often race above all else. This model is endorsed by nationalists and the alt-right, but also by minority separatist groups and a host of other “pride” organizations. This model sees either genetics, a defining trait, or shared history as the basis of community, and the community as the basis of the meaningful lives of the members of the community. This model often tends towards an unwittingly cultural relativist attitude that says it does not matter so much what your community thinks, it is only important that that decision comes from the correct members and is rooted in history and tradition.

Until the enlightenment, the moral model was the de facto choice. But in modern times, this model has been so skewed and narrowed, that if you aren’t a Southern Baptist, it feels like you are signing up for a whole lot more than you meant to when you vote Republican. It would be interesting to see how the great philosophers of the past would vote today (that is, if you put aside the fact that most of them abhorred democracy). While many of them might give hesitant support to the moral majority Republican (seeing virtue as more important than economics or personal freedom), I think many of them (certainly Socrates!) would be appalled at how little people have thought about what makes a human life good. And that is precisely the problem. Without having an idea of what makes a society and a human life good, political debates become baffling because every person arguing says they want justice, but no one has defined what they mean by justice, and seemingly everyone wants something different.

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