Thursday, January 21, 2016

Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism

Concise appraisal of Isaiah Berlin’s thought by Gerald F. Gaus: “Thus, it seems that to the extent Berlin is a pluralist [with regard to values], he is not a liberal; and to the extent he is a liberal, he is not a pluralist.” This is the conclusion reached after carefully and charitably analyzing Berlin’s argument that an appreciation of the incommensurability of plural values rationally entails liberalism. Berlin, however, appears to have eventually abandoned that claim, as Gaus notes, coming simply to endorse “a pluralism limited by rationally agreed-upon moral truth” [thereby placing him back firmly in the Enlightenment, rather than the ‘post-Enlightenment’ tradition]. Finally, writes Gaus, “to the extent his doctrine endorses liberalism, it is not his pluralism, but his ‘rationalistic’ conviction that we can uncover common objective truths [through an appeal to human nature], that does the philosophical work.” Please see Gaus’s important book, Contemporary Theories of Liberalism (Sage, 2003): 25-55.

For an introduction to Berlin’s philosophical views, see this SEP entry by Joshua Cherniss and Henry Hardy (one of the few entries, if I’m not mistaken, with a photo!)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Perverse reasoning on behalf of the Rule Egoist Principle as attributed to Hobbes


In her well-crafted and devastating critique of Gregory Kavka’s ascription of the “Rule Egoist Principle” to Hobbes’s theory, S.A. Lloyd discusses what looks to be an “optative justification” for this principle:

“[O]nly the Rule Egoist Principle gives the Law of Nature the status it would need in order to do what we want it to do; therefore the Rule Egoist principle is true. Here the force of our desire to achieve peace is communicated backward into an optative justification of the prerequisites for satisfying that desire, of the sort ‘let the Rule Egoist Principle be so.’ We want the self-preservation that comes from peace; the Laws of Nature could not secure peace unless they had the status of binding moral principles; for them to have that status, the Rule Egoist Principle would have to be true; therefore, the Rule Egoist Principle[!]. The Rule Egoist Principle is justified as a necessary requirement for our having the Laws of Nature do what we want them to do.”

As she proceeds to explain, we generally do not find such optative justifications acceptable. What I found especially intriguing in this discussion is the example she uses to illustrate the sort of perverse logic—figuratively and literally—at work in such reasoning:

“Optative justification would justify, for instance, the stalker’s belief that the movie star will love him when she meets him, because his actions in pursuit of her couldn’t have their desired effect unless this were true. The form of optative justification is: A because only if A may desired effect x be obtained. This invites wishful thinking, an acknowledged species of cognitive defect. Thus, the stalker reasons: because I desire that she love me, and to love me she must meet me, and for her to meet me I must take certain instrumentally related steps, but my taking those steps could not effect her loving me unless it were true that she’ll love me when she meets me; therefore, she’ll love me when she meets me. This stalker logic does not differ at all in form from that of positing the Rule Egoist Principle as securing self-interest (this is the force of Kavka’s ‘one ought’) because unless the Rule Egoist Principle were true, following the Laws of Nature, which are needed for peace, which is needed for securing self-interest, would not secure peace and thus self-interest.” From S.A. Loyd’s Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2009): 172-73.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Capitalist Inequality: Here, There, and Everywhere

El Lissitzky, 5. Globetrotter (in der Zeit), From Victory Over the Sun (1923)

From the Institute for Policy Studies— 

“Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us” 

America’s 20 wealthiest people — a group that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet — now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.
  • The Forbes 400 now own about as much wealth as the nation’s entire African-American population — plus more than a third of the Latino population — combined.
  •  The wealthiest 100 households now own about as much wealth as the entire African American population in the United States. Among the Forbes 400, just 2 individuals are African American — Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith. 
  • The wealthiest 186 members of the Forbes 400 own as much wealth as the entire Latino population. Just five members of the Forbes 400 are Latino including Jorge Perez, Arturo Moreno, and three members of the Santo Domingo family. 
  • With a combined worth of $2.34 trillion, the Forbes 400 own more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the country combined, a staggering 194 million people. 
  • The median American family has a net worth of $81,000. The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American families. That’s as many households in the United States that own cats.

We believe that these statistics actually underestimate our current national levels of wealth concentration. The growing use of offshore tax havens and legal trusts has made the concealing of assets much more widespread than ever before. [The rest of this article is here.]

In a post from roughly five years ago I posed the following questions (albeit now edited) and made several observations pertinent to our focus on inequality:

Is it possible to achieve a globally egalitarian neo-Keynesian Golden Age? Poverty remains recalcitrant in several regions of the world while regional and global inequality is dramatically increasing, economic facts we might grant without in any way denying the historic significance of capitalism for wealth creation (and thus betterment of standards of living if not quality of life indices). Are we, at last, reaching the structural limits of capitalist economic logic? Have we exhausted the economic—and, yes, moral—virtues of the neo-classical economic worldview? Or, are we merely at the lowest ebb of an economic cycle that will be cured by some fortuitous combination of conventional and creative politico-economic policies crafted by prudent democratic leaders of countries North and South? Is this a propitious time for contemplating and renewing the collective struggle for the dissolution of the “aristocracy of capital” and the “economization of social relations?” Is the time ripe for (re)articulation of the authority of the Good by way of abandoning the capitalist criteria for socio-economic success? Are we prepared to break, once and for all, with the structural socio-economic and political constraints of “capitalist democracy?” Must the welfare and well-being of the masses and their generalizable interests remain subordinate to the welfare of capitalists and their particular or special interests? Are the interests of working people fated to be canalized into the exclusive pursuit of economic advantage (which often deleteriously impacts the nature of ‘discretionary time’)? Must labor markets remain plagued by the material uncertainties and insecurities intrinsic to the private control of investment within the terms of globalized capitalism?

The distorted and artificial needs and the individually and socially harmful desires either directly generated or indirectly encouraged or facilitated by hyper-industrialized turbo- and finance capitalism finds the masses in a state in which they feel an overwhelming desire to be psychologically indemnified by conspicuous consumption of both goods and (status) “signs,” a logic causally implicated in the persistence of absolute and relative poverty. Capitalist democracy remains committed to the aristocracy of Capital, meaning that, in the end, the special interests of capitalists trump generalizable interests tied to the common good, while economic insecurity compels workers to canalize their interests in the struggle for higher wages or short-term material gain. The aristocracy of Capital finds workers dehumanized insofar as they’re indemnified by the false promises of conspicuous consumption and irresponsible affluence (in part, because environmentally devastating), utterly distorting the pursuit of happiness (or eudaimonia, or what might be called ‘existential sophrosyne’) and the potential of individuals for uniquely realizing and manifesting both values and virtues.

Can we, instead, accord socio-economic primacy to creating the necessary (and thus not necessarily sufficient) conditions for generalizing psychological and moral individuation or self-realization? Assuming the capacity to meet basic material human needs, can we resort to invoking moral and psychological if not spiritual criteria associated with the recognition and fulfillment of our moral and spiritual aspirations by way of regulating economic life, thereby both integrating and subordinating the economic realm in a manner conductive to generalizing the pursuit of self-actualization or self-realization (in a psychological, moral and spiritual sense)? In overcoming the freedom-inhibiting effects of inequality can we at the same time enhance and generalize an innate motivation (heretofore often repressed or suppressed) toward worthy living, in other words—and within the constraints of dignity and self-respect—generalize the capacity for the appreciation and realization of what it means to live a worthy and self-fulfilling life?

We conclude with a short list of fundamental works for mapping the sundry (i.e., historical, sociological, descriptive, normative, and evaluative) dimensions of socio-economic and political inequality as it bears upon (1) the constriction of basic capabilities and functionings, (2) the diminution of positive freedom, and (3) the failure to generalize the conditions of and potential for human fulfillment (i.e., the freedom of individuals as incarnate in their capacity to engage in active self-realization*). In short, our beliefs about and concern for equality is at one with our concern for freedom, that is, with “human empowerment and the quest for emancipation.

  • Atkinson, Anthony B. Inequality: what can be done? (Harvard University Press 2015). 
  • Bourguignon, François (Thomas Scott-Railton, tr.) The Globalization of Inequality (Princeton University Press, 2015). 
  • Bowles, Samuel. The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution (Cambridge University Press, 2012). 
  • Grusky, David and Szonja Szelenyi, eds. The Inequality Reader: Contemporary and Foundational Readings in Race, Class, and Gender (Westview Press, 2nd ed., 2011). 
  • Milanovic, Branko. The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (Basic Books, 2011). 
  • Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014). 
  • Reid-Henry, Simon. The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World Is Better for Us All (University of Chicago Press, 2015). 
  • Sen, Amartya. Inequality Rexamined (Russell Sage Foundation/Harvard University Press, 1992).  
  • Stiglitz, Joseph E. The Price of Inequality (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012). 
  • Stiglitz, Joseph E. The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015). 
  • Therborn, Göran. The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity Press, 2013). 
  • Wright, Erik Olin. Interrogating Inequality: Essays on Class Analysis, Socialism and Marxism (Verso, 1994). 
  • Wright, Erik Olin. Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010).

* On “active self-realization,” see Jon Elster’s essay, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989): 127-158.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Agrarian Revolution: Marxist Sociology & Exemplary Social Science

Please see my post at the Agricultural Law blog.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Red and Green: Marxism & Ecological and Environmental Worldviews


At the beginning of the year I posted a “reading guide” on Red-Green (or ‘Eco’) Socialism. This is an expanded version of that list with more links (still, it is far from exhaustive). It represents what I’m acquainted with by way of the attempt to integrate Marxism (and the Left in general) with ecological and environmental worldviews (I make some further, more specific recommendations in the note appended below):
  • Bahro, Rudolf. Socialism and Survival. London: Heretic Books, 1982. 
  • Bahro, Rudolf. From Red to Green: Interviews with New Left Review. London: Verso, 1984.  
  • Benton, Ted. Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights and Social Justice. London: Verso, 1993. 
  • Bernstein, Henry. Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 2010. 
  • Bernstein, Henry, et al., eds. The Food Question: Profits Versus People. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990. 
  • Burkett, Paul. Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2009. 
  • Burkett, Paul. Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2014. 
  • Carter, Alan. A Radical Green Political Theory. London: Routledge, 1999. 
  • Foster, John Bellamy. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000. 
  • Foster, John Bellamy. Ecology against Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002. 
  • Foster, John Bellamy. The Ecological Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009. 
  • Foster, John Bellamy. “Marxism and Ecology: Common Fonts of a Great Transition,” Monthly Review, December 2015 (Vo. 67, No. 7). 
  • Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010. 
  • Gorz, André. Ecology as Politics. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1980. 
  • Gorz, André. Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology. London: Verso, 1994. 
  • Kovel, Joel. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? London: Zed Books, 2nd ed., 2007. 
  • Magdoff, Fred. “A Rational Agricultureis Incompatible with Capitalism,” Monthly Review, March 15, 2015 (Vol. 66, No. 10). 
  • Magdoff, Fred, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel, eds. Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000. 
  • Magdoff, Fred and Brian Tokar, eds. Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010. 
  • O’Connor, James. Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford, 1998. 
  • Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2007. 
  • Pepper, David. Eco-Socialism: From Deep Ecology to Social Justice. London: Routledge, 1993. 
  • Postone, Moishe. Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 
  • Ryle, Martin. Ecology and Socialism. London: Radius/Century Hutchinson, 1988. 
  • Smith, Neil. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 3rd ed., 2008. 
  • Williams, Chris. Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2010.
See too the many works of the Marxist geographer, David Harvey, especially the earlier stuff. I think it’s also interesting to examine “conflicts on the ground” as it were between the Left and Green movement parties to the extent the latter finds little or nothing of value in the Marxist tradition (e.g., the early conflicts between the ‘Realos’ and ‘Fundis’ in West Germany and the ‘deep ecologists’ and largely Bookchin-led and inspired ‘social ecologists’ in the US). On the Left, André Gorz (1923 – 2007), pen name of Gérard Horst (born Gerhart Hirsch, also known by his pen name Michel Bosquet) was a New Left theorist who early on developed an “ecological politics.” By way of prioritizing (especially with regard to readings of Marx) and without intending to slight the other titles, I suggest beginning with these authors: Burkett, Foster, O’Connor, Postone, and Smith. Rudolf Bahro famously moved from Red to Green, eventually developing something like a “deep ecology” spiritual environmentalism that largely left Marx behind (at least rhetorically and strategically). Should you want to venture beyond the literature above for any reason, see the bibliographies on Marxism, “environmental and ecological politics, philosophies, and worldviews,” and “the sullied science & political economy of hyper-industrialized agriculture (or, ‘toward agroecology and food justice’),” found at my Academia page.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Reason in Action

Another book I recently read in conjunction with the bibliography on “philosophy, psychology and methodology for the social sciences” was the late Martin Hollis’s Reason in Action: Essays in the philosophy of social science (Cambridge University Press, 1996). While the directed reading regimen was intentional, it turned out to be serendipitous:

California is of course in a severe drought (to be sure, more rain than usual is expected this year, but I’ll believe it when I can’t ride my bike to school), and our household and condo. association have taken action in conjunction with the city’s quite reasonable requirements and recommendations on this score. And then I pick up Hollis’s book, the first chapter of which is a prologue and apologia, while the second chapter is titled “Three men in a drought” and opens as follows: “Water was short in the torrid summer of 1976 and there were soon calls for restraint. Where I live, the Anglian Water Authority quickly threatened to ban garden hoses if the calls went unheeded.” The first person narrative is used, along with a “realist” hypothetical or thought experiment to introduce and illustrate questions regarding collective goods and the nature of rational action, and those, in turn, in the light of important topics in epistemology and ethics. Much of it calls to mind the myriad and passionate—albeit far less rational—arguments I’ve read and heard during our drought, the principal arguments now sifted by the efforts of a creative, sensitive, and keen philosopher.

Another wonderful—and this time moving—piece from this collection is prefaced by a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, part of which is the chapter title: “A death of one’s own.”* The words are those of Rilke’s character Malte from his only prose work, The Notes of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910): “The wish to have a death of one’s own is growing ever rarer. Only a while yet and it will be just as rare to have a death of one’s own as it is already to have a life of one’s own.”

In the course of this essay, Hollis treats with analytical acuity and intellectual charity if not generosity principles and values found in Liberalism, several ethical traditions (e.g., duty-based and consequentialist), as well as approaches common to bioethics. As Hollis well demonstrates, “Where policy meets patient, the doctor has moral choices to make which no code of medical ethics can reduce to routine.” While medical ethics is often be characterized by a “top down” approach, for example when it broadly aims to “maximize welfare subject to constraints of justice” (a goal he neither dismisses nor derides), Hollis suggests we complement such an orientation with a “bottom up” approach that focuses finely on—and thus can be empathetically sensitive to—the peculiarities of the patient as an individual person: her needs, wishes, beliefs, values, worldview. This invariably becomes a node of friction insofar as it is where “the system meets the patient.” I can vouch for that, albeit second hand, as my dear wife often brings home stories from the hospital that pivot around such points of friction (the parties in question remaining anonymous). The stories are sad, tragic, amusing, unsettling, disconcerting, and even frightening in an uncomfortably intimate way (perhaps because I am close in age to many of the patients who are the protagonists of these stories). 

Hollis describes the doctor-patient relationship as “more than a bricolage of morally untidy choices but less than a systematic application of moral philosophy” (the latter route often preferred in bioethics). In his hypothetical sketch, based on all-too-real-life cases, the doctor, Henry, is overseeing George’s treatment and possible discharge from the hospital. The former’s decisions and judgments invariably involve others in subsidiary sundry ways, largely other professionals or bureaucrats (in a non-pejorative sense) of one kind or another. George of course is only one of the patients Henry is temporarily responsible for, while Henry is George’s only doctor and thus the person who decides to what degree George’s own wishes and desires will be granted a degree of deference, in other words, how much say, such as it is, George will have over the remainder of his life.

We’ll let Hollis fill out this hypothetical a bit more with regard to who George is, at least as it pertains to his stay at the hospital or who he has come to be (hence we can only make the slightest gesture in the direction of who George is as a person, with a biographical narrative, a life story, nearing its end):

“George is an old man, a widower, in hospital after a stroke. Although fairly well recovered, he still is fragile and has poor balance. But he is clear-headed, especially about his wish to go home. He says firmly that he could manage on his own; and so he probably could, if he had enough support. Otherwise there is a real danger of his falling, fracturing a leg and being unable to summon help. There is risk of hypothermia. He may easily become dirty, unkempt, emaciated and dehydrated, since it is not plain that he can dress, toilet and feed himself for long. He may not manage to comply with his medication. He might perhaps become a risk to others by leaving his fire unattended or causing a gas leak. None of this would be worrying, if there was a supporting cast. But his house is not suited to his condition. His only relative is a daughter, living elsewhere, with her own job and family and not willing to take George on [such a scenario is more common than we like to imagine]. His neighbors are unfriendly. Social services can offer something—perhaps home help, meals on wheels, a laundry service, day care, an alarm service. But this does not truly cover nights and weekends and, anyway, George is liable not to eat the meals and not to accept the day care. Meanwhile the advice from Social Services is that he should stay in hospital. It is good advice for the further reason that there will be no second chance. Often one can allow a patient a try at looking after himself, known that he can be scooped up and returned to hospital, if necessary. But George is too fragile and too alone for this to be a promising option. Yet he is in no doubt that he wants to go home and denies that he needs any of the missing support.”

Questions of self-determination (or ‘autonomy’ in the literature) and professional responsibility can be addressed, as Hollis suggests, in the context of George’s point of view, from the “bottom up,” which at some point confront questions of medical ethics posed from the “top down.” I will not attempt to catalogue or even summarize all of the lessons learned (or those one might learn) and the insights gleaned from this exquisite philosophical examination of topics within the scope of both bioethics and medical humanities, an examination at once incisive, humane, sophisticated but accessible, an artful combination of wisdom and compassion. Hollis endeavors to show “that patient centredness is not a clear guide to action and then that, even when it is, it may not be a good guide.” And he asks all the right questions, including some unexpected ones: “How much responsibility does Henry shoulder if he colludes with George’s wishes? The question is incomplete: how much responsibility to whom?” Hollis reminds us that “Henry is answerable for more people than George and to more people than George.” In brief, “Henry’s best efforts for George have a price paid elsewhere. ‘Patient-centred’ starts with George but cannot mean simply ‘George-centred’ and gives no guidance on where to stop.” An “intricate set of questions” that address Henry’s ethical and professional duties make vivid the fact that questions surrounding the possible scenarios that will likely determine the nature and cause of George’s death (at home or in the hospital) are not sufficiently faced if viewed solely and simply in the terms of the proper exercise of personal sovereignty or wholesale deference to George’s capacity for psychological and moral (or ‘rational’) “autonomy.”

In the end, Henry must decide, as a doctor and a person (his integrity hinging on the extent to which these indissolubly fuse together), whether or not George goes home, a decision that “varies with George’s insight” (which may not be constant) into his condition, situation, prospects—his life. In due course, Hollis explains why this insight cannot, or at any rate should not, be trumped by decisions and proclamations made by George’s earlier…and healthier “self.” Hollis concludes as follows: 

“I imagine that most doctors will think it best to let George go, and will find this responsibility easier to shoulder. Indeed, I think they must, as more people live longer into a fragile and confused old age. But responsibility is not here lessened on the ground that letting die is not killing. Having learnt to postpone death, we have set ourselves problems of when to cut short the losses of an extended life. We have a collective responsibility for what Henry decides but Henry is responsible for his decision. Although he can cover his back by recording a clinical judgment that George’s insight and prospects were adequate, he knows that there is more to the moral question than clinical judgment.

At any rate, George goes home. He remains on his doctor’s conscience as he is carried out a month later to a forgotten grave. But so he would have done also, languishing on in a hospital bed. Without hoping to make it easier to see in the twilight, let me end with a patient-centered prayer, also from Rilke:

O Herr, gib jedem seinen eignen Tod,
Das Sterben, das aus jedem Leben geht,
Darin er Liebe hatte, Sinn und Not.

[O Lord, grant everyone a proper end,
a passing that arises from a life
that full of love and sense and need was spent.]

Even when a death of one’s own is a poor consumer choice, it is a proper exercise of human dignity.”

* This essay originally appeared in an edited volume by M. Bell and S. Mendus, Philosophy and Medical Welfare (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Further Reading (for the second Hollis essay discussed above):

  • Berg, Jessica W., et al. Informed Consent: Legal Theory and Clinical Practice. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2001. 
  • Brody, Howard. Stories of Sickness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2003.  
  • Cassell, Eric J. The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2004. 
  • Fulford, K.W.M. Moral Theory and Medical Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989. 
  • Gillett, Grant R. Bioethics in the Clinic: Hippocratic Reflections. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. 
  • Manson, Neil C. and Onora O’Neill. Rethinking Informed Consent in Bioethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 
  • Montgomery, Kathryn. How Doctors Think: Clinical Judgment and the Practice of Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 
  • O’Neill, Onora. Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 
  • Quill, Timothy S. and Franklin G. Miller, eds. Palliative Care and Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 
  • Randall, Fiona and R.S. Downie. Palliative Care Ethics: A Companion for All Specialties. New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1999. 
  • Schneider, Carl E. The Practice of Autonomy: Patients, Doctors, and Medical Decisions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 
  • Tauber, Alfred I. Patient Autonomy and the Ethics of Responsibility. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Heteronomous & Authoritarian Character Structure in a (homegrown) Fascist Political Environment

A FB friend asked me this morning, “Do you think the brownshirts may be coming?” Herewith my reply (composed before my first cup of tea):

They’re already here (indeed, they’ve been here for some time), although they’re of uniform mind not costume (apart from white hoods and robes). And now they’re leaving footprints in the muck and mire. They’re willing to render themselves more visible to the rest of us because social and mass media has both deliberately (owing to its uncritical fawning deference to any sort of fame or celebrity) and inadvertently fanned the flames of demagogic fascist leadership, exemplified most egregiously in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Their individual and collectively shameless motivational structures having been awakened, xenophobic nationalism and fascism finds sufficient fuel in the ever-increasing number of immature and developmentally distorted character-types. With ample ideological sanction from above, as it were, the unconscious libidinal and aggressive forces are now strong enough to thwart any potential for or tendency toward developmental individuation (i.e., the moral and psychological autonomy that makes for true sociality and humane fellowship or the kind of communities that foster and require the mutual cultivation and creative eudaimonistic expression of myriad and interdependent values): the insider-group trumps the individual (pun intended). The kind of social psychological soil being tilled in the current political climate provides propitious conditions for the emergence of harmful and deadly social-psychological bacteria: illusion and delusion, including individual and collective states of denial and self-deception, as well as passions untethered from moral reason and unconscious forces or drives incapable of sublimation.

At this juncture, an impartial and thus objective observer of our society will diagnose symptoms if not forms of widespread incipient and actual shared mental illness. At the very least, we discover the authoritarian (patriarchal?) character structures and proto-fascist and fascist tendencies among motley individuals and groups, not a few of whom were heretofore ostensibly “conservative” or “moderate,” perhaps even liberal in manifest orientation and outlook. And these tendencies are exhibited among several social classes, not just the so-called lumpenproletariat. Members of these classes respect, admire and envy those assuming or holding various types of power (apparent or actual: in word or deed).

Compassion toward, let alone solidarity or identification with strangers, the out-group, the weak or vulnerable, and so forth is suspect if not dangerous for these individuals, as it is perceived as an immediate threat to their fragile and artificial sense of individual and collective identity. Such identity is shorn of viable notions of human dignity and self-respect, or what it is to be a human person, in other words, we’re left with individuals incapable of incarnating all that is “bright and beautiful” or understanding what is “sweetness and light” in the Arnoldian sense. These psychologically stunted (in a developmental sense) and morally defective individuals evidence insufficient appreciation of the developmental processes of human nature that make for “perfectibility” in a Godwinian sense, either unable or unwilling to self-actualize or even attain moments of self-transcendence or human fulfillment in the deepest sense (this need not mean, nor should it mean we blame them or hold them fully responsible for this state of affairs). Such individuals are dispositionally or constitutionally afflicted with feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt if not impotence, and anxiety, a noxious brew that gives rise to identification with those who display power and aggression, a will to dominate, hurt and humiliate or control members of out-groups, thereby exhibiting the darkest traits of heteronomous and authoritarian character. In short, the current political climate makes for what Fromm termed “the pathology of normalcy” (a locution that, conceptually speaking, has long-standing religious and philosophical pedigree), or the consensus, conformity and false consciousness that provide the necessary if not sufficient conditions for fascism.

Further Reading:
  • Burston, Daniel. The Legacy of Erich Fromm. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. 
  • Friedman, Lawrence J. The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
  • Fromm, Erich. Escape from Freedom. New York: Avon Books, 1965 (1941).
  • Fromm, Erich (Barbara Weinberger, tr. and Wolfgang Bonss, ed.) The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
  • Griffin, Roger. The Nature of Fascism. New York: Routledge, 1993.  
  • Griffin, Roger, ed. Fascism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Philosophy, Psychology, & Methodology for the Social Sciences: A Select Bibliography

My latest bibliography, on “Philosophy, Psychology, & Methodology for the Social Sciences,” is here. If you cannot access it, drop me a note and I will send a PDF version through cyberspace.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The capabilities approach to health and social justice: moving from the individual/bio-medical or natural scientific level of causation to supra-individual/social or social scientific causal pathways


In a previous post, I promised we would examine Sridhar Venkatapuram’s “impressive and urgent book,” Health Justice: An Argument from the Capabilities Approach (Polity Press, 2011). I’m not prepared to do that quite yet, but I do want to share with you something from his book on the limitations of the “bio-medical” model of health and the corresponding need to change the prevailing epidemiological paradigm in modern medicine, which is “substantively linked to the notion of disease.” The “bio-statistical theory of health” ensconced in this epidemiology “is the informational engine of medical care and public health.” Venkatapuram’s “capability approach” to health and health justice (which entails a ‘conception of health as a meta-capability to achieve a cluster of basic capabilities and functionings’) endeavors to transcend (thus not eliminate) the “dominant biomedical and risk factor model of disease causation and distribution” in its role as the overarching theory that, in turn, governs this epidemiology. In his words,

“…as it currently stands, the dominant explanatory model in epidemiology is significantly constrained even in explaining diseases. It is not able to explain fully the causation and distribution of diseases most prevalent in developed economies, namely chronic and degenerative conditions. The current paradigm is not providing satisfactory explanation for all the observable facts of disease and its social distribution patterns. [….]

Three specific limitations of the prevailing model of disease aetiology are often at the centre of debates about the ‘paradigm crisis’ in epidemiology. These include its level of analysis, its inability to recognize distribution patterns, and its partially informed recommendations for policy. The current model, which evolved from the late-nineteenth-century germ theory of disease, recognizes three categories of causal factors. These factors include biological endowments, behaviours and external exposures to harmful substances or ‘agents.’ The resulting limitation of this model is that it operates only a single level, at the individual level, and expresses a form of explanatory individualism. Short causal pathways confined to the human body are studied, while the model precludes recognizing and supra-individual level factors or social processes as part of the longer causal chain in the production of disease. As a result, the model studies individuals in a vacuum and disconnected from other individuals; it is only focused on what happens on and within the skin of individuals.”

The significance of the “level” of causal analysis, in this case, as “supra-individual level factors or social processes,” was in fact appreciated in some quarters in the early nineteenth century. In doing research for my latest bibliography on “philosophy, psychology and methodology for the social sciences,” I came across the following passage from Richard W. Miller’s unduly neglected or under-appreciated work (inferred from the comparatively few references found in the literature), Fact and Method: Explanation, Confirmation and Reality in the Natural and Social Sciences (Princeton University Press, 1987):

“In the organized pursuit of explanation, practical concerns may…dictate choice of a standard causal pattern. In the early nineteenth century, many investigators had come to explain the prevalence of certain diseases in certain places as due to filth and overcrowding. For example, the prevalence of tuberculosis in urban slums was understood this way. In these explanations, the microbial agent was not, of course, described. But the causal factors mentioned were actual causes of the prevalence of some of those diseases. If Manchester had not been filthy and overcrowded, tuberculosis would not have been prevalent. On the purely scientific dimension, acceptance of accurate environmental explanations probably did not encourage as many causal ascriptions as would a standard requiring explanation of why some victims of filth and overcrowding became tubercular, some not. Those who pressed the latter question were to lead the great advances of the germ theory. But in a practical way, the environmental explanations did a superior job, encouraging more important causal accounts. Guided by those accounts, sanitary measures produced dramatic reductions in tuberculosis and other diseases, more dramatic, in fact, than the germ theory has yielded. A perspicacious investigator might have argued, ‘We know that some specific and varied accompaniment of filth and overcrowding is crucial, since not every child in the Manchester slums is tubercular. But we should accept explanations of the prevalence of disease which appeal to living conditions. For they accurately, if vaguely, describe relevant causal factors, and give us the means to control the prevalence of disease.” [emphasis added]

Incidentally, Paul Thagard’s fairly sophisticated model of “disease explanation” as “causal network instantiation,” elaborated in his book How Scientists Explain Disease (Princeton University Press, 1999), includes a possible causal role for environmental factors, but the concept and meaning of health as such is not addressed, the implication being that disease is simply the converse of health (along with illness or, socially speaking, sickness), namely, “ill-health” (understood as an instance of a clinically identifiable biological pathology). As we will see at a later date, Venkatapuram’s capabilities approach to health spells out a normatively robust conception of health and well-being that is far more than the mere converse of “ill-health,” however important that life condition remains indicative of a significant social achievement.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Jon Elster on 'qualitative' social science (which trumps both the 'soft' and 'quantitative' varieties)

Snippets from Jon Elsters comments on “qualitative social science”:

“I believe the best training for any social scientist is to read widely and deeply in history, choosing works for the intrinsic quality of the argument rather than the importance or relevance of the subject matter. Here are some models: James Fitzgerald Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England; E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class; G.E.M de Ste Croix, The Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World; Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate; Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque; G. Lefebvre, La grande peur; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic….  What these writers and others of their stature have in common is that they combine utter authority in factual matters with an eye both for potential generalizations and for potential counterexamples to generalizations. By virtue of their knowledge they can pick out ‘telling detail’ as well as ‘robust anomaly,’ thus providing both stimulus and reality check for would-be generalists.

The same is true for authors of ‘case studies,’ among which one of the greatest remains Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Although it does not fit neatly into the category, I would also include Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. A seemingly eccentric but, I believe, compelling candidate is Arthur Young’s Travels in France, covering the years 1787, 1788, and 1780. These are ‘character portraits’ of whole societies or regimes, all of them with a comparative perspective. Marc Bloch, La société féodale, also belongs here.” [….]

*           *           *

“…[T]he classics are not obsolete. I would find it hard to take seriously someone who claimed that classical works are not worth taking seriously today because their findings, when accurate, are fully incorporated into current thinking. They have much more than antiquarian interest. I do not claim, though, that a dialogue with past masters is the only or the best way of generating new insights. Thomas Schelling, for instance, does not seem, in any obvious way at least, to have been standing on anyone’s shoulders. Kenneth Arrow may have rediscovered and generalized Condorcet’s insight, but he was not influenced by him. The work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky was as far as I know not generated by knowledge of any precursors. When I once had the occasion to point out to Tversky that one of his distinctions (between the ‘endowment effect’ and the ‘contrast effect’) had been anticipated by Montaigne and by Hume, he replied only that he was happy to be in such good company. Since the scholars I have just named are responsible for what were arguably the most decisive advances in social science over the last fifty years, one obviously cannot argue that the dialogue with the past is the only road to new insight. [….]

This being said, the dialogue with the past can be immensely fruitful, if only to identify the positions one has to refute. It is hard to imagine that non-Marxists such as Weber or Schumpeter could have written what they did if they had not read Marx closely. Direct or positive influence is also common, of course. It seems likely that some recent theories of the evolution of property systems were directly influenced by David Hume, rather than simply claiming him as a precursor. Paul Veyne’s work on the psychology of tyranny in antiquity owes much to Hegel’s analysis of the master-slave relation. George Ainslie, who has done much to render one of Freud’s basic insights analytically persuasive, might not have arrived at his ideas but for Freud’s earlier, inchoate version. I suspect that Bentham’s Political Tactics is still insufficiently mined. In these cases…the ideas inspired by the classics have to stand on their own once arrived at. The good use of the classics does not include an argument from authority.” — From Elster’s indispensable volume, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2007): 447-48 and 454-55 respectively.

I am preparing a bibliography on “Philosophy, Psychology, & Methodology for the Social Sciences,” and came across the above from my notes and thought to share it.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thoughts, Maxims & Proverbs for Thanksgiving

“Giving Thanks,Horace Pippin (1942)

“Enough is as good as a feast.”—Sir Thomas Malory (d.1471)

“Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”—John Heywood (c.1497-1580)

“Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.”—of Spanish provenance

“When eating fruit, remember the one who planted the tree.”—of Vietnamese provenance

Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.”—Alice Walker

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”—William Arthur Ward (1921-1994)

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”—William Arthur Ward     

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”—Marcel Proust

“Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.”—Henri Frédéric Amiel (1821 – 1881)

“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”—Friedrich Nietzsche

“To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.”—Johannes Gaertner (1912 – 1996)

“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”—Cynthia Ozick (b. 1928)

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”—Cicero

“Gratitude is the moral memory of mankind.”—Georg Simmel

“Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic.”—John Henry Jowett
Source: http://www.wiseoldsayings.com/ 

The entry on Gratitude in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Gobble gobble!