Monday, November 30, 2009

A Theory of Justice: Part 2 of N

I finally made it through Part I of A Theory of Justice1 and feel that it ends stronger than it began. It seems to me that the whole of the first part should be seen as an extended preamble for discussion which really begins in earnest in the following section, so I'm willing to cut him a little more slack now than I was in my initial post. That said, there are still a number of unresolved questions which I hope he's going to take up eventually, not the least of which is to meaningfully reconcile the first and second principles in some non-trivial fashion. Various observations on Part I follow.

I remain somewhat skeptical of Rawls' method, specifically with respect to his reliance on "considered judgement". He builds his case for the two principles, in part, by examining the likely outcomes of the application thereof and demonstrating that these outcomes correspond closely with widely-shared intuitions about what is "just". I would find this convincing evidence if we knew, a priori, that these shared intuitions were "correct" or "right" in some fashion. Alas, we have no such assurance, and Rawls provides no means (as of yet) by which these assumptions might be validated. As such there's no procedural guard against myopia and/or provincialism. It strikes me that, if we base a theory on how well it conforms with existing practice, we're just going to repeat what we already know. There's a real risk that we'll prematurely close off alternative social configurations which seem strange to us but that might ultimately achieve whatever it is we want to achieve in a more efficient manner. Much better, in my view, to start with axioms and principles and follow them wherever they lead.

Another big question in my mind is whether any choice from the original position is capable of meeting the requirements which Rawls lays out. One of the themes that Rawls returns to on several occasions is that a just society should be self-sustaining; under normal circumstances it should engender support for itself among its citizens. But Rawls' proposed procedure reduces the original contract to the rational choice of a single individual in reflective equilibrium given certain stipulations (veil of ignorance and so on), completely ignoring the fact that such an individual is a poor model for a real-world population. Rawls' rational individual:

  • Favors fact and careful deliberation over emotion.
  • Has a background in diverse subjects such as moral psychology and political economy necessary to making an informed judgement.
  • Is capable of intellectually engaging in a complex thought experiment.

I think Rawls is right in principle: the specification of the contract is best done under conditions of dispassionate, informed reflection. The "original position", however, is a bloodless construct which might work for a constituency of political philosophers but is doomed to fail in practice because some fraction of any society will:

  • Favor emotion over reason.
  • Lack the appropriate subject matter background.
  • Be incapable of following the reasoning of the contract all the way through to the end.

If any of the above hold true (an almost metaphysical certainty in my estimation) then a just society constructed following the principles which Rawls has outlined may find very little support in practice. And that, in turn, would tend to severely undermine its legitimacy.

1 Got distracted by Imajica... good book.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Atheism, Libertarianism, and Feminism (and Susan Jacoby)

Amanda says that feminism and libertarianism are at odds:

When I was at The Amazing Meeting, what was immediately obvious to me was that the movement is afraid of what they’d do without libertarians, in terms of numbers, and the problem with attracting libertarians is that you can’t offend their sexist/racist beliefs without them threatening to take their ball and go home.

I'd like her to elaborate on this if for no other reason than my personal edification. She doesn't provide much by way of example in the post; she mentions some sexist jokes, and critiques Bill Maher/Christopher Hitchens, but I don't see much evidence any of those items being specific to libertarianism/libertarians. Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens may be libertarians and/or misogynists, but it doesn't necessarily follow from there that the libertarian contingent among atheists even agrees with their views, much less is ready to leave the building. Nor is her contention bolstered by the various articles to which she linked in her post. I see plenty of examples that atheists can be racists and misogynists, but nothing indicating a specific linkage to libertarianism.

Of course, a less charitable reading of the quote above would be that Amanda thinks that libertarians as a group are inclined to misogyny and racism, but she's progressive enough that we can trust her not to engage in blatant stereotyping, yes?

I find the idea that there's an inherent tension between feminism and libertarianism to be counter-intuitive to say the least. Concern over the erosion of civil liberties and the desire to preserve and expand the recognition thereof, while not strictly a feminist concern, is certainly compatible with a feminist world view. There's a strong argument to be made that women benefit more from such efforts to enforce basic rights than do white males, since the latter have a traditional power structure to back them up while the former are a historically disenfranchised minority.

As long as I'm here I'll also take a moment to answer PZ's query as to why we aren't reaching out to Susan Jacoby. I haven't read Freethinkers, but I have read The Age of American Unreason and it doesn't reflect well on her as a thinker. One of her sutained themes throughout Unreason is that contemporary culture is "vulgar". What, exactly, does that mean? "Vulgar" is one of those words that sets of alarm bells in my head since it has absolutely no objective definition and is usually used by people who can't come up with substantive criticism. Ms. Jacoby is no exception; in her case "vulgar" seems to be defined as "something which I personally find distasteful". Mayhap she has a blind spot relating to pop culture, but such sentiments suggest a lack of self-awareness and critical thinking on her part.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Oh For The Love of God...

Releasing someone's private dirty pictures to the public is not sexual assault:

  1. It's not necessarily the case that "[t]he motivation to do so is indistinguishable from that as a rapist---using sex as a tool to dominate and humiliate". As Amanda goes on to point out such releases can contribute pertinent information to the public discourse; in this case we learned that Carrie Prejean is a bleeding hypocrite. Carrie's boyfriend may well have released the video to demonstrate her hypocrisy, in which case any accompanying feelings of domination and humiliation which Carrie may feel are a by-product of the release rather than the motivating factor.
  2. If anything, Ms. Prejean may have had a legitimate expectation of privacy w.r.t. her video, in which case the release thereof may constitute may violate her right to privacy. At the same time she's voluntarily become a public figure, in which case such expectations as might have existed are somewhat diminished. In either case "violation of the right to privacy" != "sexual assault".
  3. Just because an act might share the same motive as a sexual assault doesn't make it a sexual assault. I may release scandalous photos of you with a sheep because I hate you and want you dead, but that doesn't mean I've committed the equivalent of murder.

As I've written numerous times before, most recently with respect to a proposed definition of rape, recklessly expanding the definition of terms such as "sexual assault" does more harm than good in the long run. Publishing someone's private pictures is a qualitatively different act from how the term "sexual assault" is typically understood. The latter usually entails a (greater or lesser) violation of someone's bodily autonomy while the former does not. I'd thus argue that a physical act is a significantly worse, from a moral standpoint, than the release of photos. Lumping both of them together under the rubric of "sexual assault" blurs this distinction, placing a serious act of violence in the same category as a non-violent act, diminishing the severity of the former by association with the latter.

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