Thursday, July 12, 2018

Hear Ye, Hear Ye! Look, you either support Trump and his politics, or you don’t (in other words, this is about reality, not ‘reality television’)

Trump’s views and policies are, as a preponderance of evidence attest, racist, plain and simple (they’re also nationalist, mercantilist and xenophobic; plutocratic and kleptocratic; in short, neo-fascist, but we’re leaving that aside for the moment), thus it is egregiously implausible and irrational to assert or argue otherwise. Those individuals in this country who refuse to believe this are displaying symptoms of an authoritarian character structure (e.g., ‘tendencies to compliance, to idealization of and identification with authority,’ as well as sadomasochism, all of which is psychologically anchored in if not fueled by states of denial, self-deception, wishful thinking, and so forth), in keeping with their uncritical loyalty to Trump and his political preferences and desires as expressed in a rhetoric further corroded and disfigured by narcissistic megalomania. Trump’s incendiary and grotesque anti-democratic rhetoric, alongside the fact that allies or members of the radical right are part of the White House, has contributed to a social and political climate in which racism, including expressions and acts of hatred as well as rage and violence, find a nation-wide ethos of political and cultural legitimacy, hence headlines like, “self-described Nazis and white supremacists are running as Republicans across the country;” hence statistics citing the growth of white supremacist groups (not identical to those of yesteryear although firmly within the orbit of belief of their racist forebearers); hence widespread social media documentation of shameless public acts of callousness, mean-spiritedness and illiberal intolerance.

Any self-described “moderate” or traditional “conservative” among Republicans or “independent” voter who nevertheless continues to support the President, who makes no effort to distance himself or herself from his rhetoric and policies, is morally and politically complicit in the acts of moral wrongdoing traceable in one manner or another back to Trump and his administration: through his rhetoric, personal behavior, or the regressive and reactionary political and economic policies. There are of course different types and degrees of engagement with others who would and in fact do wrong and our allocation or distribution or assessment of specific responsibility and culpability should reflect those differences. Some individuals and groups are directly engaged in wrongdoing as a result of their political compromises, actual acts of complicity, or simply slavish devotion to The Leader, while others may do wrong indirectly, “through the causal contribution of their action to the wrongdoing of others” (e.g., a vote, or refusal to vote, monetary contribution, institutional support, public endorsement, rhetorical encouragement, willful ignorance, deliberate neglect, etc.). None of us are “wholly” innocent, as it were, but those actively opposed to the President and his policies have not made the dubious or nefarious political compromises, or engaged in the sundry acts of complicity that together serve to undermine what is left of our democratic values, institutions and processes, that fan the flames of intolerance, hatred, and violence. This is no reason whatsoever for complacency or smugness on the Left, but at least we can be confident that in a dark and apocalyptic-type time and place, we have chosen to fight our battles from a moral high ground, our sights set on what is right and just, leaving Trump and his supporters to act out their aggression and destructiveness from positions firmly entrenched in the (often immoral) muck and mire. This knowledge alone should steel us for current and coming struggles.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Some thoughts on anger

Some years ago I initiated a series of post “on anger,” only two of which I completed (see here and here), and I’m still not sure when or even if I will get around to completing the series. By way of some rectification, I’ve written the following, which merely skims the surface so to speak, but will have to suffice for now:
Anger is often a vice, and many if not most of us lack self-control when we are angry (e.g., when ‘consumed’ by anger). Spinoza’s conception of anger was a bit different from that of Seneca and the Stoics generally, yet he shared their view that anger is invariably and entirely a negative emotion inherently fraught with danger. And the Buddhist view on anger is virtually identical to that of the Stoics, although they do not have “our” concept of emotion(s) as such, classifying anger as one of the kleśas (‘mental states that cloud the mind and manifest in unwholesome actions’).
But there is another philosophical perspective deserving of consideration, one that goes back to both Plato and Aristotle and to some extent is found in the Hebrew Bible, especially when it comes to God, what we might term “righteous anger,” for example, God’s anger at a person’s sinfulness or the Israelites’ lapses from fidelity to God or the pursuit of justice, these being the more reasonable examples (other instances strike one as irrational and wholly vindictive). In brief, “some form of anger [is] sometimes warranted and often useful.” Plato believed anger (‘as an intrinsic aspect of the spirited part of the tripartite soul’) was capable of being governed by reason. Aristotle’s take was a bit different, for anger can have its reasons: it can be either reasonable or rational to be angry, hence a “good-tempered” man “is angry at the right things and with the right people, as he ought, when he ought, for as long as he ought.” In this case, anger is dictated by reasons, or at least it is in harmony with same. Thus, Aristotle “thought that a man who is angry for the right reason, with the right person, to the right degree, on the right occasion, and in the right manner, is praiseworthy.”
I tend to agree with Aristotle here, although I would add that the “good-tempered” man (or woman) is exceedingly rare, in other words, this dispositional character trait is far from common. A person who does not get angry at Trump’s racist speech and public policies, at his demeaning and degrading rhetoric, at his kleptocratic and plutocratic politics, at his narcissistic megalomania, and so forth and so on, would appear to be cold-hearted, unethical and self-deceiving (perhaps in some state of denial and prone to wishful thinking as well). A person that cannot summon anger in response to the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar is not acting virtuously or ethically. But such anger need not get the better of one, as we say. I think the Aristotelian view is, for most of us, intuitive, and thus at least plausible, although there is much to be learned from both the Buddhists and Stoics about how to deal with our anger when it is likely to trump or eviscerate reason. So I am in agreement with P.M.S. Hacker’s remarkable analysis of anger in The Passions: A Study of Human Nature (John Wiley & Sons, 2018):
“Reason is … needed to apprehend what is offensive, to oneself or others. Indignation or resentment may indeed be appropriate emotional responses to slight and insult, to false accusations or to various forms of offence. That is a proper mark of concern and care. Annoyance and irritation are natural reactions to various forms of disturbance, and natural expressions of frayed nerves. But these natural responses need to be dampened and kept under control lest they feed the flames of fury [or hatred or rage]. Even if anger is warranted, it does not follow that any form or manifestation of anger is warranted. We often have an obligation to control, moderate, or suppress the manifestation of our anger.
Anger is a warranted response to wrong-doing in its manifold forms. It may fuel one’s courage to oppose what is wrong. Nevertheless, to act in anger is never well advised [on this, the Stoics, Buddhists, Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza can all agree]. One may castigate without rage, censure and deplore without fury. The greater one’s wrath, the more likely it is that one’s judgment be led astray, one’s utterances be inappropriate or worse, and one’s action be unjust and harmful. One may rightly seek redress. It is good to endeavor to destroy evil. But reason needs no support from rage or anger in heightened forms in its quest for the right and the good.”
Toward a Psychological & Philosophical Understanding of Anger: A Brief Reading Guide
  • Averill, James. Anger and Aggression: An Essay on Emotion (Springer-Verlag, 1982).
  • Ben-Ze’ev, Aaron. The Subtlety of Emotions (MIT Press, 2000).
  • Briggs, Jean L. Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family (Harvard University Press, 1970).
  • (The) Dalai Lama (Geshe Thupten Jinpa, tr.) Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective (Snow Lion Publications, 1997).
  • de Silva, Padmasiri. An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology (Rowman & Littlefield, 3rd ed., 2000).
  • de Silva, Padmasiri. Buddhist and Freudian Psychology (Shogam Publications, 4th ed., 2010).
  • Elster, Jon. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  • Fisher, Philip. The Vehement Passions (Princeton University Press, 2002).
  • Frijda, Nico H. The Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  • Hacker, P.M.S. The Passions: A Study of Human Nature (John Wiley & Sons, 2018)
  • Harris, William V. Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2001).
  • Heald, Suzette. Controlling Anger: The Anthropology of Gisu Violence (Ohio University Press, 1998). 
  • Kassinove, Howard, ed. Anger Disorders: Definition, Diagnosis, and Treatment (Routledge, 2013 [1995].
  • Murphy, Jeffrie G. and Jean Hampton. Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  • Nhât Hanh, Thich. Anger (Riverhead Books, 2001).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Roberts, Robert C. Emotions in the Moral Life (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  • Sarat, Austin and Nasser Hussain, eds. Forgiveness, Mercy, and Clemency (Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • Seneca, Lucius Annaeus (Robert A. Kaster and Martha C. Nussbaum, tr.) Anger, Mercy, Revenge (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  • Thurman, Robert A.F. Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

A Fourth of July inspired reading list for after the holiday

The following books are contemporary works on democratic theory and praxis that have both critical and constructive virtues and often represent radical or at least imaginative approaches to ongoing topics in discussions and debates on democracy. They were chosen in part on this occasion because they also treat—sometimes indirectly or by implication—pressing issues and problems of democratic practice in the United States. I originally wanted to confine the list to ten titles, but found I could not do that! Of course this small compilation reflects my tastes and values on such matters, so it is in some measure idiosyncratic, but I’m convinced that, objectively or impartially speaking, all of these works are worthy of your consideration if not close reading. You’re of course free to inform me what you think I should have included but did not, keeping in mind that I did not want this list to be very long (i.e., like many of my bibliographies, including the one on democratic theory). I invite you to share this list with others.

  • Bilgrami, Akeel. Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Dahl, Robert A. How Democratic is the American Constitution? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Gilbert, Alan. Democratic Individuality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Reflective Democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Innovating Democracy: Democratic Theory and Practice after the Deliberative Turn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Landemore, Hélène. Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Phillips, Anne. The Politics of Presence: Issues in Democracy and Group Representation. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1995.
  • Przeworski, Adam. Capitalism and Social Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Rawls, John (Erin Kelly, ed.) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Young, Iris Marion. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Justice Scalia on “the very nature of a game”

Below is my comment on one of the late Justice Scalia’s remarks in his dissent in PGA TOUR, Inc.v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001): “But since it is the very nature of a game to have no object except amusement (that is what distinguishes games from productive activity), it is quite impossible to say that any of a game’s arbitrary rules is ‘essential.’”
The essence of games as “amusement” might be true in those instances where “the action begins and ends in itself” (‘it is not the marbles that matter but the game’), where, in the words of Johan Huizinga, “the result of the game is unimportant and a matter of indifference.” But I doubt it’s true that “amusement” is the only object of a game, which would appear to render it the essence of a game. Although such a view is not far from Bernard Suits’ definition of a game as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (a definition that may have some relevance to a conception of art in which work is also play, and involves both conventions and constraints that serve, in one sense, as both necessary and unnecessary ‘obstacles’ that, when overcome, enable creativity).
Organized professional sports, as one type of “game,” and all of which, in turn, are more or less a species of play, have several “objects” in view, even if we’re restricting our reference to the class of spectators. We seem to vicariously identify with the various athletic skills of the athletes and, in the case of the World Cup, fans often participate—vicariously or otherwise—in the group identity that takes nationalist form. Perhaps one could place this under amusement in the sense of pleasure or a diversionary interest of some sort, but then how does that account for such things as “football hooliganism” or the range of emotional expressions one sees during these games, or the importance ascribed to more than a few parties in winning, either a particular game, or the World Cup itself (one can make the requisite analogies with the PGA). And of course professional sports are money-making enterprises which makes them one kind of capitalist “productive activity” and thus these types of games are not in the first place distinguishable as games from “productive activity” (moreover, ‘game theory’ and ‘gamesmanship’ in politics remind us, ‘amusement’ does not aptly characterize the ‘very nature of a game’).
And the (‘profane’ or secular) ritual quality of or the ritual elements in sports events, ranging from the fairly serious or dour to the pompous and silly, appear increasingly, in one way or another, to be one of the principal properties of modern, professional sports (which may be amusing to those on the outside-looking-in!). Finally, think of the rhetoric of “war games:” “Ever since words existed for fighting and playing,” writes Huizinga, “man have been want to call war a game.”
That the nature of a game (or games) in our world (in other words, looking at prominent games in our society), at least in professional sports, is not reducible to “amusement,” is crystallized in the conclusion of Huizinga’s class, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1950, first edition in German, 1944): “Now, with the increasing systematization and regimentation of sport, something of the pure-play quality is inevitably lost [this was written before sabermetrics in baseball!]. [….] The spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness” (Huizinga notes that this has also affected—‘infected—‘the non-athletic games where calculation is everything, such as chess and some card-games’).
And invoking the distinction (which, as Frederick Schauer reminds us, is not hard and fast) between “constitutive” and “regulative” rules in the case of sports, one might plausibly claim the former are essential while at least some of the latter are not, indeed, at least some of these might be considered “peripheral,” at the very least, they are not essential to the sport in the way its constitutive rules are, hence they are more liable to change: be it through addition, subtraction or elimination, alteration, etc. In brief, there are sports and there are sports; there are games and there are games; and there is play and there is play.
[Thanks to Anthony Gaughan, whose post at The Faculty Lounge, ‘Justice Scalia on Arbitrary Sports Rules,’ first prompted my comment.]

Friday, June 29, 2018

Žižek & Veiling

I try to read Slavoj Žižek as much as is humanly possible (that is, in light of the fact that there are others ‘out there’ that deserve to be read as well), if only because he writes about virtually everything, including most matters about which I care about or at least have enough interest to generate an opinion or two. That he writes with verve and panache (no doubt that description does not do his prose justice) both attracts and repels, in my case, the former motion predominates. Finally, anyone who is at once an “Hegelian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and political activist,” is bound to stir up things in a way so as to warrant our undivided attention (a rare thing these days), although I confess never having warmed up to either Hegel or Lacan (I have read most of that written by the former, even if it was quite a few years ago; as for Lacan, I still prefer the Master himself, or Melanie Klein, or a philosopher writing on Freud, like Ilham Dilman, to most things Lacanian, which may simply reflect a matter of taste in such things, although I suspect my reasons run deeper than that).

All the same, being of sound Leftist mind, it so happens I often agree with Žižek, and when I don’t the differences are at least provocative and debatable. Fortunately, for those of us hounded with anxiety about how to spend our precious time (an anxiety that quickens with age), Žižek occasionally writes short and accessible works without sacrificing the familiar verve, panache and provocation. In one such volume, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail (Melville House and Allen Lane: 2016), in particular, the essay “Breaking the Taboos of the Left,” Žižek writes in a note:

“Incidentally, the same PC Leftist liberals who practice a superhermeneutics of suspicion apropos Western societies, discerning traces of sexism or racism in the barely perceptible details of our speech and behaviour, display breathtaking tolerance when confronted with women wearing a burka, seeing in it playful forms of resistance, an act of anti-commodification (a protest against the reduction of women to sexual objects), etc.—there is, of course, a moment of truth in all this, but it doesn’t change the fact that the burka’s basic meaning is to enact women’s subordination.”

Entire books have been written on this topic but I’ll be comparatively brief. I’ll grant Žižek that in earlier times and more geographically circumscribed places it was probably in fact the case that “the burka’s basic meaning [was] to enact women’s subordination.” And it is certainly true that there remain places around the world where that “basic meaning” stubbornly persists. Yet in our world it’s far more accurate to see the practice of veiling as replete with various meanings, many if not most of which have nothing to do with patriarchal domination. First, let’s establish a few basic facts:

The tradition of veiling and modest dress pre-dates Islam, “acting as a marker of class, faith, ethnicity and age in many cultures.” Veiling is often Quranic in inspiration insofar as modest dress is recommended and veiling is thought to exemplify such modesty for women (the relevant Quranic verses, 24: 30-31, ‘direct both Muslim men and women to dress and interact modestly, and also instruct women not to display their beauty except to their husbands and close relatives’).

Wearing the burqa or hijab is thus not a (Quranic-based) religious obligation (nor an injunction derived from hadith), in fact, it’s safe to say that veiling in general has been transformed by mass media in North America and Europe into a trope for and symbol of “most-things-Muslim” in ideologically motivated discourse. Hence, and for example, veiling becomes a thinly veiled discourse, say, between Islamists of various sorts and secularists of various stripes (as in both Iran and Turkey in the Islamic world and in France and elsewhere in Europe), one in which the concrete choice of Muslim women from around the world is submerged if not trivialized, and the variegated reasons (not all of which are simply and solely ‘religious,’ in fact, some we might rightly characterize as ‘Liberal’ or emancipatory) for veiling are ill-understood or ignored (Žižek’s ‘moment of truth’). As one author writes, “Among countless other meanings, it [veiling] might make specific statements about a women’s piety, her values regarding sexual modesty, her resistance to Western notions of sexuality, he desire for privacy or mobility in male-dominated environments, or her membership in a political or national movement.”

When one examines the ostensible reasons for banning “the veil,” for example, one finds them chock full of false assumptions, vulgar stereotypes and inflated insecurities. Success on the legal front to ban burqas or political polemics and cultural diatribes against veiling can only serve to prolong and exacerbate the more dangerous and reactionary forms of religious, cultural and political conflict, at the very least it will do nothing by way of addressing “national security” concerns with terrorism or contribute in any more than a symbolic way to eliminating the subordination of women.

Back in 2011, my colleague at Religious Left Law, Clark West, wrote the following upon France’s enactment of a law against veiling (sans the embedded links):

“This week the long anticipated French law making illegal any public wearing of the veil (niqab) went into effect. It will be fascinating to watch in the weeks and months ahead to see how the French legal system deals with this draconian bill. Anyone who has read Fanon’s justly famous essay, ‘Algeria Unveiled’ from the midst of that most brutal, torture and terror filled war waged by France during the 50’s and 60’s, or who has studied the multivalent symbolic reach of veiling and unveiling of women in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, will both marvel at the uncanny repetition of irrational, orientalist fear shown by the French in this instance, and be frustrated by the way many westerners fail to recognize how resistant the veil is too simplistic reductions to either abject feminine submission or religious fundamentalism.

The Muslim practice of veiling is a rich and complicated one, as the remarkable recent scholarship of a number of Islamic scholars have shown. Two of the more interesting readings of the veil that I am aware of are those of Leila Ahmed, professor at Harvard Divinity School, and Saba Mahmood from UC Berkeley. Both are feminist scholars of Islam who reveal in arresting detail that the history and present practice of veil-wearing is a very complex one, and needs to be very carefully contextualized in its local adaptation to be properly understood. The veil in Saudi Arabia, for example, will mean quite different things than it does in Egypt, for example. Mahmood will even resist reducing it to a symbol at all, insistent that its religious significance should not be minimized in favor of sociological, political and personal interpretations. It may speak of an intensely intimate relationship with God, and not be primarily for public scrutiny or ‘reading,’ in other words.

Ahmed, an Egyptian by birth, has just published a new book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America, in which she shares her own slow transformation from having a deep dislike and suspicion of the veil and its meaning for women and Islamic life more broadly, to an appreciation for its role in progressive political and religious movements by women. How especially disappointing it is, then, that the French have moved to ban it in the name of making France safe from reactionary Islamic forces. It would seem that Fanon’s critique, launched in the very midst of a war because of which it had precious few ears to hear it in the metropole, has not yet found its mark so many years later. One hopes that American political leaders are not too quick to smugly dismiss the French law as something ‘unthinkable’ on American soil, and will take the time to listen to these prescient Muslim women’s voices. We have much to learn from them, not only about politics and inclusivity, but about the richness of the Islamic spiritual tradition, of which the veil is a significant and potent part.”

As a result of a brief but spirited debate with an interlocutor at the international law and politics blog, Opinio Juris (on a post by Julian Ku: ‘Do the Face-Veil Bans Violate International Law?’), some years ago, I appended the following clarification (slightly edited here) to my comments:

“ … I am not in favor of the State enforcing a putative religious requirement for women to ‘veil,’ believing (as a good Liberal should) this to be a matter of private, free choice on the part of women. And this is in keeping with the Qur’ān (2: 256), which states ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ Thus, for instance, what occurs in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s imposition of the chador (čādor) after the 1979 revolution, the Taliban’s imposition of the burqaʻ after their accession to power in 1997, as well as the violent coercion in the name of Islam by non-State actors and groups to ‘enforce’ veiling of one kind or another is contrary to both Liberal principles and the Qur’ān.” Enough said?

Recommended Reading:

  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Abu-Lughod, Lila, ed. Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Afkhami, Mahnaz, ed. Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
  • Afzal-Khan, Fawzia, ed. Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out. New York: Olive Branch Press/Interlink, 2005.
  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Ahmed, Leila. A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Amer, Sahar. What Is Veiling? Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
  • Avi, Sajida Sultani and Homa Hoodfar, eds. The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003.
  • Bowen, John R. Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Deeb, Lara. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi‘i Lebanon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. New York: Berg, 1999.
  • Esposito, John L. and François Burgat, eds. Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in Europe and the Middle East. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
  • Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck and John L. Esposito, eds. Islam, Gender, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Keaton, Trica Danielle. Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics & Social Exclusion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
  • Khan, Shahnaz. Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000.
  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • McGoldrick, Dominic. Human Rights and Religion: The Islamic Headscarf Debate in Europe. Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing, 2006.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, revised ed., 1987.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. New York: Perseus Books, 1992.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Women’s Rebellion & Islamic Memory. London: Zed Books, 1996.
  • Nouraie-Simone, Feresteh, ed. On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era. New York: The Feminist Press, 2005.
  • Ozdalga, Elisabeth. The Veiling Issue: Official Secularism and Popular Islam in Modern Turkey. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1998.
  • Scott, Joan Wallach. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Sedghi, Hamideh. Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Shirazi, Fagheh. The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001.
  • Stillman, Yedida K. Arab Dress: From the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The putative emergence of emotions from sensory systems: from William James to artificial moral agents (AMAs)

After acknowledging that artificial intelligence engineers “are a long way off from knowing how to develop systems that can feel pleasure or pain, or have human-like emotions,”* Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen are, nonetheless, no less hopeful for the prospects of progress on this front: “[S]ensory technology is an active area of research, and it is here that one might look for the foundations of feelings and emotions” in AI and robotics.
So, the pivotal assumption is that sensory modalities provide the (causal) foundations of feelings and emotions and, in principle, we can construct technologies somehow capable of replicating these animal and human modalities which will thus get us that much closer to developing the requisite AI technologies in possession of the ability to “feel pleasure or pain, or have human-like emotions.” This is, in effect, at once both a reductionist and emergentist model (‘reductionist’ insofar as it traces feelings and emotions back to the senses, and ‘emergentist’ insofar as the sensory modalities provide us with the ‘data’ which will make possible the construction of AI/robotic systems that feel pleasure and pain as well as have ‘human-like emotions’) of the emotions that is no less troubling than (related if not similar) reductionist accounts of the mind. And it has scientific pedigree back to the nineteenth century in the “William James-C. Lange psychological theory of the emotions” which, in turn, has of late been resurrected in the “somatic marker theory” provided by the cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Damasio’s theory has been accorded pride of place among most twenty-first century neuroscientists (and not a few scientistically-inclined philosophers). As P.M.S. Hacker argues, ‘[b]oth theories have striking similarities to Descartes’s” and all three “vividly demonstrate how failure to attend adequately to conceptual questions concerning the nature of the emotions leads to conceptual confusions in the construction of what purport to be empirical theories of the emotions.”
Not surprisingly, then, our co-authors take on board the philosophical and psychological confusions that plague James’s theory and re-appear in the main with Damasio. Hacker attends to the fundamental conceptual questions avoided by these empirical theories, which allows him to proffer a powerful and succinct critique of these accounts in his latest book, The Passions: A Study in Human Nature (John Wiley & Sons, 2018).
Wallach and Allen subscribe to a bodily-based “building-blocks”/emergentist model of the emotions that Hacker sufficiently—albeit indirectly—dismantles with his critique (ad hoc additions from evolutionary psychology in no way improve this model’s plausibility) of James and Damasio. They concede that “sensory technology” has not, as yet, provided the aforementioned “foundations” (i.e. ‘building-blocks’) for the emotions, but their subscription to this thoroughly discredited empirical theory has not expired:
“These newer sensory technologies, combined with much older technologies of cameras and microphones, allow considerable amounts of sensory data to be accumulated. However, the next step—mapping these data onto the feelings and emotions that motivate actions [of course not all feelings and emotions are motivational in this way]—is more difficult. Emotions and other mental states [magically!] emerge from a web of inputs from different senses. [….] [C]omplex integrative somatic architectures [or, more plainly, bodily building-blocks] are clearly within the scope of artificial systems. It remains to be seen whether it is necessary to emulate in AMAs the full range of subtle emotional states evident in humans. The only way to find out is to build progressively more sophisticated system and test them in realistic situations.”
* I would argue that no such knowledge is forthcoming. For but a taste of the reasons why, please see this post: “A brief broadside on why AI systems or robots cannot—now or in the future—‘read’ our emotions.” 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

“artificial moral agents” (AMAs) & moral judgment

“ … [I]t is quite conceivable that an artificial agent [like a robot] might display moral judgment without utilizing the same cognitive or affective tools a human agent would apply.” — Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Hmmm. My understanding of what moral judgment means and entails comes solely from (i.e., is absolutely dependent upon my prior understanding of) how human beings have used and understood same. In other words, how could an “artificial moral agent” (AMA) exercise moral judgment sans the cognitive and affective powers used by human beings in making moral judgments. The claim makes no sense to me: it seems not only implausible but absurd. Yes?—unless one wants to reply that it’s “conceivable” solely in terms of the imagination, or a dream, or science fiction ….

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Immigration & Refugees: A Select Bibliography

Rohingya refugees
 My latest bibliography is on “the ethics, law, and politics of immigration and refugees.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A brief broadside on why AI systems or robots cannot—now or in the future—“read” our emotions

In a volume edited by Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong (Oxford University Press, 2009), our editors open the Introduction with the breathless statement that scientists at the Affective Computing Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) “are designing computers that can read human emotions,” as if this is a foregone conclusion awaiting technical development or completion. Wallach and Allen, respectively a consultant and writer affiliated with Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and a Professor of History and Philosophy of Science and of Cognitive Science, also inform us that “today’s [computer] systems are approaching a level of complexity … that requires the systems to make moral decisions—to be programmed with ‘ethical subroutines’ to borrow a phrase from Star Trek” (the blurring of boundaries between contemporary science and science fiction, or the belief that much that was once science fiction on this score is no longer fiction but the very marrow of science itself, is commonplace). This argument depends, I will argue at a later date, on a rather implausible model of what it means for us to make “moral decisions,” as well as on an incoherent or question-begging application of the predicate “ethical.”
Before going any further, I should state that I do not believe it is true that “artificial intelligence” (hereafter, AI) replicates (or might in principle or soon replicate) human cognitive powers and abilities (or capacities), although it may “replicate” in a very attenuated or simply analogical sense, one aspect or feature of one particular cognitive ability, even then, in as much as human cognitive abilities do not function in isolation, in other words, as they work more or less in tandem and within a larger cognitive, affective, and situational (and temporally ‘tensed’) human context, the replication that takes place in this case is not in any way emulative of human intelligence as such. AI is not about emulating or instantiating (peculiarly) human intelligence, but rather a technological replication of mathematically amenable aspects of formal logic (as with algorithms), thus it is a mistake to describe the process here as one of “automated reasoning” (i.e., AI machines don’t ‘reason,’ they compute and/or process), if only because our best philosophical and psychological conceptions of rationality and reasoning cast a net—as the later Hilary Putnam often reminded us—far wider than anything that can, in fact or principle, be scientized, logicized, or mathematized (i.e., formalized).
I want to briefly address the claim that AI systems can—or soon will—“read human emotions.” By way of tilling the ground for our discussion, it is not an insignificant fact that, in the words of P.M.S. Hacker, “[t]he deepest students of the role of emotions in human life are the novelists, dramatists, and poets of our culture” (Hacker confines his examination of ‘the passions’ from the vantage point of philosophical anthropology to Western civilization). A virtually identical point has been made by Jon Elster in his book, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999):
“… [W]ith respect to an important subset of the emotions we can learn more from moralists, novelists, and playwrights than from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology. These emotions include regret, relief, hope, disappointment, shame, guilt, pridefulness, pride, hybris, envy, jealousy, malice, pity, indignation, wrath, hatred, contempt, joy, grief, and romantic love. By contrast, the scientific study of the emotions can teach us a great deal about anger, fear, disgust, parental love, and sexual desire (if we count the last two as emotions). [….] I believe…that prescientific insights into the emotions are not simply superseded by modern psychology [here Elster means largely what we would call ‘scientific psychology’] in the way that natural philosophy has been superseded by physics. Some men and women in the past have been superb students of human nature, with more wide-ranging personal experience, better powers of observation, and deeper intuitions than almost any psychologist I can think of. This is only what we should expect: There is no reason why one century out of twenty-five should have a privilege in wisdom and understanding. In the case of physics, this argument does not apply.”
I would amend Elster’s account of the relevance of science to the study of the emotions to narrow its range to those emotions we share with nonhuman animals (for reasons I will not go into here) and further qualify it with the following remark from Hacker:
“The constitutive complexity of human emotions, their diverse relation to time, to knowledge and belief of a neurologically uncircumscribable scope, to reasons and the evaluation of reasons, to somatic and expressive perturbations, to motivation and decision, guarantee that there can be no simple correlation [let alone causation!] between genetic, physiological, or neural facts and an emotion [this comment is made with regard to the efforts of developmental and evolutionary psychologists as well as cognitive neuroscientists to identify a class of absolutely basic (‘natural kinds’ if you will) human emotions].”
In short, we can conclude that science does not and will not provide us with our best or most accurate knowledge and understanding of human emotions. One fundamental reason this is the case is the fact that emotions often “exhibit” what Hacker defines as “both compositional complexity and contextual or narrative complexity”:
“Compositional complexity is patent in the manner in which emotions may involve cognitive and cogitative strands (perception, knowledge, belief, judgment, imagination, evaluation, and thought); sensations and perturbations; forms of facial, tonal, and behavioral manifestation; or emotionally charged utterances that express one’s feelings; reasons and motives for action; and intentionality and causality. The contextual complexity is manifest in the manner in which emotions, in all their temporal diversity, are woven into the tapestry of life. An emotional episode is rendered intelligible not only by reference to a past history—to previous relationships and commitments, to past deeds and encounters, and to antecedent emotional states. The loss of temper over a triviality may be made comprehensible by reference to long-standing, but suppressed, jealousy. One’s Schadenfreude (delight at the misfortune of another) or by reference to one’s standing resentment at an insult. The intensity of one’s grief may be explained by reference to the passion with which one loved. [….] For the most part, understanding the emotions, as opposed to explaining their cortical and physiological roots, is idiographic rather than nomothetic, and historical rather than static.”
This suggests that the notion that AI systems or robots “reading emotions” is quite implausible if not impossible (I happen to think the latter), given the manner in which emotions are “woven into the tapestry of life.” Some might respond by asserting, more plausibly (and after the work of the evolutionary psychologist Paul Ekman on ‘facial recognition technology’), that what is being “read” here are simply facial expressions and perhaps bodily comportment. But assuming that is true, it’s still doubtful if only because even episodic or “temporary” emotions “have characteristic multiple associations, manifestations, and forms of expression” both within and across cultures (and these are not static), together with the fact that we can conceal our emotions by, say, pretending to feel an emotion one does not feel and thus mimic emotions and emotional expressions. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the “facial manifestations of emotions occur in a context that gives them meaning.” Hence facial recognition software alone will not suffice to “read” our emotions, if only because, as Hacker writes,  
“[o]ur emotions are made evident not only by our countenance and voice, but also by our posture and mien [all of which can be mimed and mimicked by a decent actor, an adept criminal, a dishonest person or a ‘drama queen’], the way we walk or sit, our gestures and gesticulations. So called body language, sermo corporis, as Cicero dubbed it, is rich and variegated, with natural behavioural roots and cultural modifications, constraints, refinements, and inventions. [….] Throughout recorded history, posture and deportment were refined and constrained in order to differentiate the aristocracy from the demos or plebs, imperial rulers from the ruled, and men from women. Natural gestures and gesticulations of anger, defiance, triumph, submission, grief, awe, and wonder were, from one period to another, subject to various forms of social modification and restraint to mark out the superior from the inferior, the cultivated from the uncouth.”
“[f]acial expression, inarticulate vocal expression, gesture, and mien constitute collectively an orchestra of possible behaviourable manifestations and expressions of agitations, of the perturbations of temporary emotions, of enduring emotions, of moods, and of emotional attitudes. In addition there are wholly conventional behavioral signals by means of which we express our feelings. These include nodding or shaking one’s head, thumbs up or down, pointing with index finger or—rudely—with thumb, winking, beckoning, waving, and rude and obscene gestures of rejections, mockery, and insult. Couple them with the articulate verbal expressions of agitation, emotion, mood and attitude; the tone and speed of utterance; and the volume of voice in which one speaks … and we have a veritable symphony for the manifestation and expression of affections in general and of emotions in particular. The orchestra is normally conducted in honest concord. The various forms of discord are often marks of insincerity, which, for the unaccustomed, is difficult to make. [….] One can wear a veil but, when one doesn’t, one’s features are revealed. That one can sometimes conceal one’s feelings does not imply that, when does not, it is not the very feelings themselves that are manifest—even though anger is not shaking one’s fist and crying is not sadness.”
Hacker explains how the “behaviour of others, in all its diversity and complexity, in a context that renders it intelligible, constitutes the logical criteria for ascribing emotions to them.” These multifarious logical criteria are not available to an AI machine or robot. Furthermore, our emotions are not simply inferred from the behavioural criteria we observe, as behaviour provides the (non-formal) logical and non-inductive ground for ascription of an emotion, and such criteria are defeasible in part because “there is a degree of opacity and sometimes even a form of constitutional indeterminacy about the emotions and their manifestation.” This “interpersonal opacity” is more frequent and pronounced in cross-cultural encounters. In any case, the opacity and indeterminacy of the emotions (or, put differently, their ideographic character), whatever their depth and authenticity or the motives they give rise to, can make for mutual misunderstanding between two people who love each other, or between two close friends who know each other well:
“There need be no disagreement between them over the facts of their relationship—but one interprets the manifold nuances of behavior and attitude one way, and the other another way. There may be no additional data to resolve the misunderstanding—all the facts are given. One person makes a pattern of their emotional life one way, the other person another way. There need be no further ‘fact of the matter.’”
This vividly illustrates, I think, the wild implausibility if not nonsense ensconced in the belief that AI machines or robots can or in the near future, “read emotions.” The uniqueness of human nature and the role of emotions as part and parcel of the human condition, singled out here in terms of “the penumbra of opacity and indeterminacy surrounding the application of concepts of the emotions,” is an urgent reminder that
“there is such a thing as better and worse judgment about the emotions of others. Greater sensitivity to fine shades of behaviour is conducive to more refined insight into their hearts. Wide knowledge of mankind and openness to what people tell of themselves make for better judgment. If one knows a person well, one is more likely to be able to render his responses and reactions intelligible than if one were a mere acquaintance [or an AI machine!]. One may learn to look, and come to see what others pass over. One may become sensitive to imponderable evidence, to subtleties of glance, facial expression, gesture, and tone of voice. One will then not have a better ‘theory of the emotions’ than others: one will have become a connoisseur of the emotions.”
The capacity for and power of judgment is distinctively human and thus forever beyond the reach of AI. And only a (human) person, not a robot, has the potential to one day become “a connoisseur of the emotions.”
Relevant Bibliographies:

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Human Dignity & International Legal Human Rights

After Kant, because human animals alone have dignity they can make necessary and compelling or objective claims on each other (hence reciprocal notions of ‘obligation’ or ‘duty’ and ‘right’), and thus our actions are capable of embodying or expressing the “motive” proper to morality, one that also accounts for the (rational) recognition of the objective worth of others as “ends in themselves.” Dignity is an intrinsic value that signifies absolute worth, “a value that cannot be compared to, traded off against, or compensated for or replaced by any other value” (Allen Wood). Our dignity is owing to our rational normative agency (or ‘autonomy’), as we are beings that bring, so to speak, moral value or goodness into the world. Acting morally here means, in one sense, acting for the sake of humanity in one’s person, thereby respecting the objective worth of humanity as an end in itself and calling upon us to treat every person with equal dignity (as the worth of all rational beings is equal). It means that we accept moral constraints on our action if we are to make sense of the notion of our (reciprocal) capacity (potentiality) for rational agency (i.e., the capacity to will and act).

And with Wood, let’s not forget that “our capacities for feelings and emotion and even our animality are parts of our rational nature.” Such a conception is metaphysical in nature (I use this description loosely, sans any commitment to Kant’s specific metaphysical edifice and propositions, but more as a way to indicate a transcendence of naturalism insofar as that denotes a realm of strict causation or what Raymond Tallis terms ‘wall-to-wall’ naturalism). It means persons are to be construed as both infinitely valuable and irreplaceably valuable. As Kant said, we should always treat people as “ends” (‘self-sufficient’ ends at that, and thus not in the sense of some thing or state of affairs to be brought about by us) and never merely just as “means” (the ‘Formula of Humanity as End-in-Itself’). The polity of ends, if you will, means that we act as a self-governing community or society insofar as we are a collective group of (would-be) rational agents who act within the constraints of common, self-imposed, and objective norms. Dignity at once constrains and empowers.

In an incisive and discriminating discussion of Michael Rosen’s treatment of Kant and the idea of dignity in the former’s book, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (2012), Thomas E. Hill provides us with a defense of Kant’s views so as to weave together the “different strands of thought … commonly associated with dignity” as canvassed by Rosen: “(a) rank or status, (b) intrinsic value, (c) ‘measured and self-possessed behavior,’ and (d) respectful treatment.” Hill takes up the arduous challenge of explaining how these different elements make for a coherent if not compelling and wondrous tapestry in Kant’s work.

Although I am selecting and summarizing parts of Hill’s article for our purposes, I will not attempt to explain how these may or may not (or should or should not) be directly relevant or applicable to the “prominent” role played by the concept of dignity in the founding documents and conventions of the international legal human rights system. However, I do introduce some general thoughts on these matters by Paolo G. Carozza and Allen E. Buchanan respectively, and several titles in the list of “references and further reading” can aid in extended and sustained exploration of this topic. I should perhaps also note that, unlike Michael J. Perry in Toward a Theory of Human Rights: Religion, Law, Courts (2007), I believe we can and should provide a perfectly non-religious or “secular” ground for the fundamental morality of international legal human rights as incarnate in the idea “that every human being has inherent dignity and is inviolable.” At the same time, I welcome Perry’s attempt to proffer a specifically religious—in this instance, Christian—ground for this idea in as much as it might represent a worthy contribution to the Rawlsian project of an “overlapping consensus” (in our case, as it applies to the international legal and political order):

“Rawls’s solution to the challenge of legitimacy in a liberal society is for political power to be exercised in accordance with a political conception of justice. A political conception of justice is an interpretation of the fundamental ideas implicit in that society’s public political culture.

A political conception is not derived from any particular comprehensive doctrine, nor is it a compromise among the worldviews that happen to exist in society at the moment. Rather a political conception is freestanding: its content is set out independently of the comprehensive doctrines that citizens affirm. Reasonable citizens, who want to cooperate with one another on mutually acceptable terms, will see that a freestanding political conception generated from ideas in the public political culture is the only basis for cooperation that all citizens can reasonably be expected to endorse. The use of coercive political power guided by the principles of a political conception of justice will therefore be legitimate. [….]

Political power is used legitimately in a liberal society when it is used in accordance with a political conception of justice. Yet the challenge of stability remains: why will citizens willingly obey the law as specified by a liberal political conception? Legitimacy means that the law may permissibly be enforced; Rawls still needs to explain why citizens have reasons, from within their own points of view, to abide by such a law. If citizens do not believe they have such reasons, social order may disintegrate.

Rawls places his hopes for social stability on an overlapping consensus. In an overlapping consensus, citizens all endorse a core set of laws for different reasons. In Rawlsian terms, each citizen supports a political conception of justice for reasons internal to her own comprehensive doctrine. Recall that the content of a political conception is freestanding: it is specified without reference to any comprehensive doctrine. This allows a political conception to be a ‘module’ that can fit into any number of worldviews that citizens might have. In an overlapping consensus each reasonable citizen affirms this common ‘module’ from within her own perspective.”

With such an overlapping consensus we thus might achieve in philosophical and theoretical terms what has already been accomplished “on the ground,” that is, the “practical consensus” represented by the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), namely, a complementary metaphysical and moral justification that accords normative and even democratic legitimacy to the international legal system of human rights. Alongside several other legal and philosophical students of international legal human rights, Allen Buchanan reminds us of the conspicuous part played by the concept—and conceptions—of dignity in this system:

“Whether or not the notion that international legal human rights system is grounded in and serves to affirm the inherent dignity of humans [a]s a central feature of the system, it is surely a desideratum for a justification for the system that it can make sense of this notion given its prominence. [….]

The preambular rhetoric of the major human rights documents, including the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and the two Covenants (ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and ICESCR [International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights]), refers not just to dignity, but to the inherent dignity of the human individual. The most plausible interpretation of this language is that the documents take seriously the idea that each human being is a subject of moral concern on her own account or, as one might also put it, that each has moral worth that is not in any way derivative.”

Back to Hill: when dignity refers, as in (a) above, to a notion of rank or status, it means that

“every human person has a status of dignity, which consists of rights, duties, and respect-worthiness that [non-human] animals lack. It is the status of equality before the moral law and the status of a moral ‘lawmaker,’ that is, a person who shares in the common practical reason that specifies what the basic law requires. The kinds of protections, responsibilities, and honour that are due to a person …. depends on many complex factors that determine how the fundamental moral law (for Kant, ‘the Categorical Imperative’) should be interpreted and applied.”

With regard to the notion of (b) “inherent dignity” (Buchanan) or “intrinsic value,” Kant’s interpretation is fairly unique insofar as it hones in on the idea that persons

“with dignity are ‘ends-in themselves,’ and so are not to be treated merely as means or treated with indifference. They are … beings with a special status and value that Kant contrasts with ‘relative value.’ As members of a possible ‘kingdom of ends,’ their dignity is contrasted with mere price—‘market price’ and ‘attachment price.’ Dignity is also described as an ‘inner worth’ and an ‘unconditional and incomparable worth. This implies that dignity is a worth not dependent on a person’s talents, accomplishments, class, race, gender, sexual orientations, or even moral record. More strikingly, dignity is not merely ‘above price,’ but is also ‘without equivalent.’ That is, dignity is not a commensurable value that permits trade-offs. [….] In effect, … to say that persons have the special intrinsic value of dignity is just to say that any fully rational and reasonable person would (and so we should) grant them the special status (rights, responsibilities, and honour) that the moral law (a law of reason [as it is, incidentally, with Hobbes]) requires. Kant describes this status in abstract and relatively formal terms in his earlier work, and then, taking account of real human conditions, he develops a thicker, more substantive conception in his later work.”

Much like Confucius reconfigures the notion of the junzi, which had meant the “son of a lord” (denoting aristocratic rank, specifically, the male child of a noble family and thus ‘nobility of blood’), to refer instead to (a moralized) “nobility of character,” Kant likewise proffers a transvaluation in meaning for the notion that (c) “measured and self-possessed behaviour,” or the historic idea that “that one should act in a dignified way as befitting one’s class and social status.” Kant’s moral theory, writes Hill,

“transforms the idea, making it appropriate to his conception of all human persons as fundamentally moral equals with basic capacity and rational predisposition to relate to others with due respect for standards that can in principle be justified to all. Thus the relevant class and status is that of human beings with dignity, and the ‘dignified’ behaviour that this calls for is whatever in context expresses one’s valuing of this status. Although Kant does not make the point explicitly, the relevant standards for dignified behaviour must include the duties to oneself not to debase humanity in one’s person—by servility, lying, gluttony, drunkenness, or any sexual practices incompatible with respect for oneself and others.”

“Finally, regarding (d), Kant held that we acknowledge the dignity of humanity by treating every person with respect. Respect for the moral law demands basic respect for every human person, no matter how disliked, useless, or misbehaving. [….] The duty to respect others is not … the general requirement to treat persons with dignity as ends-in-themselves, but rather a derivative and more specific duty comparable to the duties of love, gratitude, and friendship.”

*          *          *

Because my lifeworld (as the individuation—idiosyncratic or otherwise—of one or more worldviews) has a strong Marxist orientation,* and in conjunction with the fact that this is of course a more or less Leftist blog, I want at this point to highlight Marx’s affinity with the Kantian idea of human dignity, a comparatively little appreciated fact about Marx’s philosophical anthropology, his views on human nature, and his overarching humanist framework. Perhaps the best treatment of this topic is found in R.G. (Rodney) Peffer’s Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (Princeton University Press, 1990). Peffer discusses Marx’s conception of human dignity in the context of an argument characterizing Marx’s overall moral viewpoint as that of a “mixed deontologist.” We need not go into the specifics of that argument but it’s helpful to have a shorthand description of same:

“ … [A]lthough Marx does not have a fully developed philosophical theory about morality, he does have a normative moral perspective, in which there is a fundamental continuity, at least from the formation of his original systematic views in 1844 through his later works. This moral perspective is based on three primary moral values: freedom (as self-determination), human community, and self-realization, as well as on some sort of principle demanding an egalitarian distribution of these goods—at least the good of freedom.”

Peffer goes so far as to claim that Marx “takes the nonconsequentialist notion human dignity rather than pleasure, happiness, or human perfection as the ultimate court of appeal in moral reasoning.” The “notion of ‘human dignity’ is even more fundamental to [Marx than the notion of freedom as self-determination],” for he is “committed to the equal intrinsic dignity of human beings and thus to equality in the distribution of freedom.” Human dignity for Marx serves as a unifying thread explicit in the early writings and implicit in his later works, evidencing a consistent fidelity to its function as an “evaluative concept.” Thus human dignity and the corollary good of self-respect might arguably be defined as axiomatic for Marx, more fundamental therefore, than freedom (as self-determination), human community, and self-realization, all of which, in turn, are presupposed or assumed by, or stand as one of the premises of any analysis of such pivotal and well-known Marxist concepts as alienation and exploitation.

Finally, the notion of human dignity in Marx appears in his idea (and ideal) of a communist society:

“There is, in fact, much textual evidence that Marx accepted the evaluative notion of human dignity. As Eugene Kamenka writes, Marx ‘is simply not concerned to portray communism as a society of plenty; he is concerned to portray it as a society of human dignity: a society in which labour acquires dignity and become free because it is carried out by full and conscious participants in a community given over to co-operation and common aims.’”

*          *          *

“At a very high level of generality, one can find human dignity invoked across legal systems of widely divergent traditions [here’s where the Rawlsian notion of an ‘overlapping consensus’ is germane] to denote two interrelated ideas: (a) and ontological claim that all human beings have an equal and intrinsic moral worth; and (b) a normative principle that all human beings are entitled to have this status of equal worthy respected by others and also have a duty to respect it in all others. The normative principle includes within it the obligations of states to respect human dignity in its law and policy as well. Based on this core common meaning of human dignity, there is broad consensus across legal systems that certain ways of treating other human beings ought always to be prohibited by law. Prohibitions on genocide, slavery, torture, forced disappearance, and systematic racial discrimination, for instance, represent some important examples of universal acceptance of the implications of the status and basic principle of human dignity. It is not surprising that in international human rights law many of these clearest instantiations of the requirements of human dignity also coincide with the strongest and exceptionless norms of international law, found for example in the definitions of crimes against humanity or jus cogens.

In the same way, the most widespread and evident use of dignity in human rights adjudication can be found in cases dealing with the protection of life itself and the integrity (physical or mental) of human persons. Cases are legion where inhuman and degrading treatment is found to violate the inherent dignity of the victims, and references to the requirements of human dignity pervade the case law of virtually all systems in these areas.” — Paolo G. Carozza

*          *          *

… [T]he relevant notion of dignity can be understood to include two aspects. First, there is the idea that certain conditions of living are beneath the dignity of the sort of beings that human are. Thus, for example, we say that when prisoners of war or victims of ethnic cleansing or the elderly or institutionalized persons with mental illness are kept in severely crowded, filthy conditions, this is an affront to their human dignity. [….] The implication is that, given the kinds of beings they are, namely, human beings, such a life is unfitting for them, beneath them, incompatible with their dignity as beings of that kind, and that for them to live in those unfitting conditions is an injury or something that is contrary to what they are due. Let us call this first aspect of dignity the well-being threshold aspect.

The second aspect of dignity is the interpersonal comparative aspect, the idea that treating people with dignity also requires a public affirmation of the basic equal status of all and … if they are not treated in this way they suffer an injury or a wrong. This second aspect of dignity is difficult to grasp is one approaches it by trying to define the term ‘basic equal status’ in a positive way. The prospects are brighter if one takes a kind of via negativa, focusing on cases where we have strong and stable intuitions about how unequal treatment constitutes an insult to a person’s dignity. When women’s testimony in court is systematically discounted because it is the testimony of women … or when a person of color is required to eat in a separate facility or use separate toilets, or when a woman receives less pay than a man doing the same job simply because she is a woman, … there is an affront to the person’s dignity in the interpersonal comparative sense, regardless of whether this kind of behavior tends to undermine their prospects for a minimally good or decent human life. [….]

If dignity includes both a well-being threshold aspect and an interpersonal comparative aspect, then a system of international legal human rights that affirms and protects the dignity of all people will include rights that function to ensure that all have the opportunity to lead a minimally good or decent life—a life fitting for human beings—and that all are treated in ways that recognize their equal basic status [‘fitting for human beings,’ explains Buchanan, ‘includes the idea that a good life for human beings typically requires some significant scope for autonomy’].” — Allen Buchanan 

* Should anyone be interested, and by way of elaboration, my lifeworld (as the individuation of one or more worldviews) happens to contain substantial elements from a broadly Marxist tradition and no less important philosophical and spiritual ideas and components from Buddhism, both streams of which are colored by Jain-like epistemological principles or a pragmatist-like epistemic orientation (from John Dewey to Hilary and Ruth Anna Putnam) that has no compunction whatsoever about borrowing, stealing, or learning from any number of non-religious and religious traditions and worldviews, from Stoicism in the ancient world to anarchism in our own time, the guiding principle of all such endeavors being a concern for Truth (my understanding of which is Gandhian in an existential or experiential sense, while philosophically dependent on the notion of truth as ‘one and many’ as filled out in several works by Michael P. Lynch). I believe this lifeworld to be minimally coherent, although I can hardly make any claim to a rigorous logical consistency, in part because of my belief in the inevitability of “metaphysical pluralism” (understood in a manner compatible with a minimal or modest ‘realism’ of sorts), and a conviction that our individual and thus idiosyncratic lifeworlds, as derived from or inspired by more or less “official” worldviews found in humanist and religious traditions and philosophies around the globe, “are more like a collage than a Canaletto” as explained by the late Ninian Smart, a trailblazer in the study of (religious and non-religious) worldviews and philosophies East and West, North and South. Smart suggests we acknowledge the significance of the fact that “we tend to live in a certain amount of aporia,” asking:

“Do we, when it comes to the crunch, really have a systematic worldview? We have an amalgam of beliefs, which we may publicly characterize in a certain way. I may say that I am an Episcopalian, but how much of my real worldview [what I term above a ‘lifeworld’] corresponds to the more or less ‘official’ worldview which tells me nothing directly about cricket, being Scottish, having a certain scepticism about nationalism, thinking there is life on other worlds, shelving the problem of evil, or other matters. Our values and beliefs are more like a collage than a Canaletto [cf. Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term ‘bricolage’]. They do not even have consistency of perspective.” 

References & Further Reading:

  • Beitz, Charles S. The Idea of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • Besson, Samantha and John Tasioulas, eds. The Philosophy of International Law (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Buchanan, Allan E. The Heart of Human Rights (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Capps, Patrick. Human Dignity and the Foundations of International Law (Hart Publishing, 2010).
  • Carozza, Paolo G. “Human Rights, Human Dignity, and Human Experience,” in Christopher McCrudden, ed. Understanding Human Dignity (2011): 615-629.
  • Daly, Erin. Dignity Rights: Courts, Constitutions, and the Worth of the Human Person (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).
  • Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Cornell University Press, 3rd ed., 2013).
  • Düwell, Marcus, et al., eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
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