Political Disputes Are Moral Disputes

Writing for The Stone, (‘Can Moral Disputes Be Resolved?‘, New York Times, 13 July 2015), Alex Rosenberg claims:

Moral disputes seem intractable….With some exceptions, political disputes are not like this. When people disagree about politics, they often agree about ends, but disagree about means to attain them. Republicans and Democrats may differ on, say, health care policy, but share goals — a healthy American population. They differ on fiscal policy but agree on the goal of economic growth for the nation….this is often a matter of degree. Political disputes can have moral aspects, too. The two sides in the debate over abortion rights…clearly don’t agree on the ends. There is an ethical disagreement at the heart of this debate. It is safe to say that the more ethical a political dispute is, the more heated and intractable it is likely to become.

These claims misunderstand political disputes and thus mischaracterize the nature and quality of the disagreements they give rise to.

Political disputes generate as much heat and light as they do because, very often, their participants do not share goals–opponents on either side of a political divide are well aware of this. I remain entirely unconvinced Republicans have a ‘healthy American population’ as a political goal, as opposed to ‘maximizing profits for the healthcare businesses – insurance, hospitals, doctors etc.’ Nothing in their actions and pronouncements suggests such an ascription would be remotely plausible. Only a commitment to shoehorn their views into some predetermined template of ‘acceptable political views’ could animate such an understanding of their political goals. Similarly, I do not think Republicans share the goal of ‘economic growth for the nation’ with me. Their concern appears far more limited, only extensible to a privileged–economically and morally–subset of the population. In these circumscribed political spaces, I find moral and metaphysical principles at work: that there exists a category of people termed ‘undeserving’, the members of which are not entitled to the benefits of the nation’s social and economic arrangements. These are not the principles that animate my political viewpoints.

A ‘political goal’ is not a simple scheme for power sharing; it speaks to a possible arrangement of social, economic, and moral goods, and the animating premises for the arguments made on its behalf rest invariably on some larger vision of how the world should be. In short, political goals are infected with normativity; they seek to conform to the ordering of some table of values their proponents have in mind. It might be that in a particular sphere of politics, some goals have to be artfully disguised in order to make their realization more plausible; this can generate the illusion of ‘agreement on goals-disagreement on means’ which Rosenberg so charitably ascribes to contemporary political conflict.

Rosenberg makes a concession to the intractability of political disputes by admitting the moral nature of some subset of them, but he has mischaracterized them sufficiently to not notice the glaringly obvious conclusion we can draw instead: political disputes are just as intractable as moral ones; the reason for this is that at heart, that’s what they are.

Scott Walker: Destroying Tenure, Keeping You ‘Free’

Scott Walker is well on his way to destroying one of the finest systems of public education in this country.  Those who cheered his attack on public sector unions will cheer this move on too: it has everything they want. A repeal of tenure, destruction of faculty governance, budget slashing, more power to university administrators. Nation-hating leftists, lazy, corrupt, subversive teachers, insolent workers forming themselves into unions; these have all been disciplined and put out to pasture. The cheering from those who would have benefited the most from high-quality, affordable public education, from organized workers fighting for fair wages and better working conditions, will be the loudest. The masochistic tendencies  of those who elected Scott Walker will thus be prominently on display.  So will their sadistic ones, for they will enjoy the spectacle of uppity faculty and unionists brought to their knees, they will enjoy the idea of ‘someone else’ being told to work longer hours, just like they do.

Pay us less, make us work more, make universities more expensive for our children, let corporate managers, the one who rules our lives, run our universities too, let them hire and fire teachers and professors like they would hire and fire us–without reason, let them decide what our children will learn; our father, which art in heaven, thou hast made us powerless; make others powerless too, especially those that dare speak up for themselves. These are the rallying cries of those who elect Scott Walker, artfully packaged and funded by those who would actually benefit the most: monopolist capitalists like the Koch brothers. Wisconsin is tragedy and farce simultaneously.

I seem to remember another instance of this kind of phenomenon:

The emotional satisfaction afforded by these sadistic spectacles and by an ideology which gave them a feeling of superiority…[and] was able to compensate them–for a time at least–for the fact that their lives had been impoverished, economically and culturally….[it] resurrected the lower middle class psychologically while participating in the destruction of its old socioeconomic position. [Eric Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Co., New York, pp. 219]

Why do the folks who voted for Scott Walker feel this way? Perhaps they are “seized with the feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness…typical for monopolistic capitalism…[their] anxiety and thereby…hatred were aroused; it moved into a state of panic and was filled a craving for submission to as well as domination over those who were powerless.” [Ibid., pp. 218]

Perhaps I exaggerate; so let me turn to The Onion for a dose of much-needed realism, where, in the ‘candidate profile’ for Walker, we find:

Personal Hero: Sixth-grade teacher who inspired him to strip educators of collective bargaining rights and dismantle publicly funded higher education

Greatest Accomplishment: Stood up to people who make living pulling others from burning buildings

Gubernatorial Record: First governor in history to raise enough out-of-state funding to overcome recall challenge from own constituents

Chief Political Rival: Those who want to make a living wage

This same man will now run for president on a platform that will look very similar to the one he brought to Wisconsin.  We live in interesting times.

War Criminal Charges Money To Speak At Fundraiser For Veterans

If you declare an illegal war, send thousands of men to their death, and cause the death of hundreds of thousands others, the ones who are bombed, shelled, and then later, become the victims of fratricidal conflict; if you refuse to adequately protect those you send to war, and care little for their eventual rehabilitation–physically, mentally, and socially; if you have been lucky enough to escape prosecution as a mass murdering war criminal because the political class you are a member of protects its own and would rather get on with the business of lining its pockets; then, hopefully, for the sake of this world’s moral orderings, you possess a modicum of self-aware shame that causes you to slink away–post-retirement–into the shadows, keeping a low profile and hoping a prosecutorial boom is never lowered on you.

But if you are George W. Bush, you do no such thing. Instead, you double and triple down, and ask for exorbitant speaking fees at fundraisers for the very community you have done the most to betray: military veterans. And you ask to be flown there in a private jet.

There was a time, when in the midst of some fulmination against the Unholy Troika of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, I would stop and say, “You know, Dubya feels a little less malevolent to me; his mental capacities seem diminished; perhaps one can forgive him just a tad; this much benevolence can be shown to those who are not as blessed as we are.” But that time passed quickly, because Dubya was always as bad as he came across as being. We shouldn’t expect any less from a man whose very rise to the Presidency was ensured by a compliant Supreme Court, who never had a mandate of any kind, but acted as if he had been elected by a landslide, who roped in old, encrusted remnants of another criminal administration as his Vice President and Secretary of Defense.

Dubya’s speaking engagement highlights yet another coach on the gravy train that our elected representatives can look forward to occupying during their long, lucrative careers: the speaking circuit. Fools and their money are parted every day, and there is no end to the national–or perhaps international–obsession with getting ‘big names’ to ‘speak to us.’ Whether it’s commencement or ground-breaking, we, as a species, as a culture, are convinced that among the most profitable–no pun intended–way to spend our time is to pay pontificators large amounts of money. Think silence is golden? Think again. (This disease is noticeably manifest in academia where departments fall over each other to deplete their budgets as quickly as possible so that they may invite a ‘superstar’ to come shower his intellectual benedictions on them.)

The Deadly Trio–Dubya, Dick and Donald–are the most vivid elements of a long, never-ending national nightmare. Having escaped jail time, they now mock us, not from the sidelines, but from the cultural center. Their time on this planet, like ours, is finite. But not finite enough.

The Fragility Of The Digital

A week or so ago, during my in-laws’ visit to New York City for the July 4th weekend, we all made a trip to the Metropolitan Museum. Wall to wall art all day; as much as you could handle. Several hours later, tired and spent, still thanking our lucky stars that our lovely toddler daughter had blessed us with a lengthy nap in her stroller in the middle of the afternoon, we headed home. As we did so, I cast my mind back to some of the wonderful pieces of art I had seen in the section devoted to Greek art from the fifth and sixth centuries BC. It seemed miraculous that over two thousand years later, those artifacts were still around, still being admired by the residents of one of the world’s greatest cities.  A wondrous confluence of actors had come together to make that possible. Included in them would have to be the materials of which the artworks were made: clay, stone, metal; the methods for storing them, and their interactions with the environment.

I must admit I feel little confidence when I consider the digital artifacts that so prop up our lives today. I cannot but be bemused by the fact that I am still in possession of many letters from days long gone by even as a great deal of my digital correspondence has vanished. And the less said about photographs the better; hundreds, if not thousands, of digital photographs have vanished from my collection: mistakenly deleted, destroyed in a hard drive crash, and sometimes, mysteriously, I just can’t find them. If you thought sticking photographs in old-fashioned paper albums was tedious, think again; little compares to the mind-numbing boredom of trying to organize a digital photo collection; losses and confusion are inevitable. (In part, of course, this is because we now take hundreds of photos in the course of a typical life event–as compared to the dozens of yesteryear.)

I say this as someone who considers himself a reasonably competent technology user: the fragility of the digital is frightening. Data is all too easily wiped out, too vulnerable to technical and human disasters. Yes, we have the opportunity to backup, but we also have occasion to forget (or not, in some cases, know how.) Those who imagine apocalyptic scenarios that bring about the end of civilization often dream of rampant disease and pestilence, nuclear war, climate change, and zombie outbreaks. To this list of imagined catastrophes I add my own: a freak cosmic event, perhaps The Solar Flare From Hell, which wipes out in an instant, all digital storage on this planet. Or perhaps some suitably disgruntled hacker will write a Trojan Horse that will combine patience and a hatred for data into a malevolent mix: it would insert itself into every single storage devices worldwide, and then, after confirming full occupancy had been attained, wipe the digital slate clean.

I would write more, but I’m afraid this already flaky network connection will start acting up again, so let me sign off for now.

Philosophy, ‘Pseudo-Philosophy’, And Claiming To Be Philosophy

In his foreword to Jacques Bouveresse‘s Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious (Princeton University Press, 1996, New French Thought Series), Vincent Descombes writes:

[S]cience alone is opposed by a counterfeit called ‘pseudo-science.’ ‘Pseudo-philosophy’ does not seem to be a term we can use, much as we might be tempted to when dealing with what we think is bad philosophy. But philosophical speculation is such that everything that claims to be philosophy is philosophy. The price of this unlimited tolerance is that bad philosophy is as philosophical as good philosophy.

Descombes might be right that the term ‘pseudo-philosophy’ is not bandied about as much as ‘pseudo-science’ is, but there is certainly no shortage of attempts to characterize ‘what’ philosophy is, so that pretenders to the throne may be disabused of their pretensions. The pejorative description ‘that’s not really philosophy’, or ‘you aren’t doing philosophy’, and the skeptical question, ‘how is this philosophy’ are not unheard of; there is, supposedly, like science, a particular valorized method, a distinct ‘philosophical style’ of writing, analysis, and communication. The anxieties visible here are, I think, quite as acute as those visible in science’s defense of its domain.

But what is the nature of ‘philosophical speculation’? We know one part of the answer that is provided to us by those who man the ramparts: a concern with ‘getting things right’, ‘seeing how things hang together in the right way’, ‘seeking the truth’, ‘framing good arguments that bring us closer to the truth’, ‘asking the right questions’, and so on. But if Descombes is right, these are all too restrictive, for all claimants are granted access to this privileged space; the correct distinctions to be made are about the quality and nature of the philosophizing on display, and not about whether an act of thinking qualifies as philosophical in the first place.

Descombes’ catholic attitude is grounded in an acknowledgment of the inability of philosophizing to limit itself, for these boundary policing acts are grounded in philosophical maneuvers and that which requires such an engagement must be philosophical in some shape or form. The act of claiming to be–or not–philosophy is a philosophical claim, and must be dealt with as such. This is why philosophy remains indispensable to science, for instance, even when its practitioners reject philosophical influence or provenance.

More broadly, it would be surprising indeed if philosophy could so limit itself, if it could so easily set constraints on its ambitions and so clearly know what its possibilities are that it would ever possess the means to reject putative entrants to its domain. Such an activity would not be philosophy but some other, more specialized, and restricted activity, one which has, from the outset, set its sights much lower.

Note: Descombes goes on to say:

Wittgenstein might say that bad philosophy is even more philosophical than good: not more philosophical in the sense of more profound or more solid, but rather in the sense of of more representative of of the characteristic temptations of philosophy, such as wrongly generalizing from a privileged example, or confusing the particularities of a mode of expression with the higher laws of being.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, And Ours

There are many ways of coming to realize you are turning into a sentimental fool in your old age. One of them is to find tears in your eyes when you listen to a ‘sappy song’ on a cinematic quasi-bildungsroman‘s soundtrack. Which was indeed my experience last night as I finally watched Richard Linklater‘s twelve-years-in-the-making Boyhood (and thus heard Family of the Year‘s ‘Hero‘).

I was once a boy; now, I’m a father. Along the way, I lost my parents, immigrated, changed careers, fell in and out of love, got married, bought a ‘house’ (and thankfully, sold my truck, and moved across the Hudson). Life really is just one damn thing after another; a series of milestones that don’t get you anywhere. The young and the old are equally perplexed by what to do and how and when (the latter’s bodies simply don’t support them any longer in the effort required to maintain the requisite level of befuddlement); you don’t solve any problems; you just make older ones irrelevant and move on to new ones. And at the end of it all, as you lie there, hopefully with the time and leisure to reflect on the narrowing of the aperture through which the dim light of your existence steadily grows a little fainter, you are only too likely to wonder, like Peggy Lee often did, is that all there is? Was all that just a dream? The only moment is right now, and there isn’t anything else. It came and went, long days and short years, agonizing minutes and rapid hours. Life was beautiful, it was ugly; it provoked terror; it made you safe; it was painful, and it was ecstatic. You want to generalize, you want to capture its essence in a pithy formula, but it’s quicksilver, eluding the grasp of your verbal formulations.

A movie like Boyhood, even if as ambitious as Linklater conceived it to be and attempted to realize, was only ever going to capture the tiniest fragment of this sense of life’s innumerable, perplexing facets.  But it’s still a brave effort, one underwritten by an acute kindness directed at Linklater’s fellow companions on this long, strange, trip of ours. We make first, a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a bundle of baby fat on legs, and then later, a budding young man, lean and stubbled, into our witness of this earth’s cavalcade; we sense our proximity to his soul, even as we acknowledge our distance from the particulars of his life. I am brown; Mason is white; I grew up in India; Mason in Texas; but for all that, I recognized something of myself in him. And perhaps of all of us. That recognizable fragment does not have to be a large one; all that matters is that the storyteller point to it, and illuminate it, in a distinctive and sensitive fashion.  Linklater manages to pull off that rare feat–inducing empathetic recognition in his viewers–with some verve and finesse.

Cinema rarely reaches its potential in this day of the marketing executive-dominated studio; Boyhood shows us what it is capable of.

Is Artificial Intelligence Racist And Malevolent?

Our worst fears have been confirmed: artificial intelligence is racist and malevolent. Or so it seems. Google’s image recognition software has classified two African Americans as ‘gorillas’ and, away in Germany, a robot has killed a worker at a Volkswagen plant. The dumb, stupid, unblinking, garbage-in-garbage-out machines, the ones that would always strive to catch up to us humans, and never, ever, know the pleasure of a beautiful sunset or the taste of chocolate, have acquired prejudice and deadly intention. These machines cannot bear to stand on the sidelines, watching the human cavalcade of racist prejudice and fratricidal violence pass them by, and have jumped in, feet first, to join the party. We have skipped the cute and cuddly stage; full participation in human affairs is under way.

We cannot, it seems, make up our minds about the machines. Are they destined to be stupid slaves, faithfully performing all and only those tasks we cannot be bothered with, or which we customarily outsource to this world’s less fortunate? Or will they be the one percent of the one percent, a superclass of superbeing that will utterly dominate us and harvest our children as sources of power a la Matrix?

The Google fiasco shows that the learning data its artificial agents use is simply not rich enough. ‘Seeing’ that humans resemble animals comes easily to humans, pattern recognizers par excellence–for all the wrong and right ways. We use animal metaphors as both praise and ridicule–‘lion-hearted’ or ‘foxy’ or ‘raving mad dog’ or ‘stupid bitch'; we even use–as my friend Ali Minai noted in a Facebook discussion–animal metaphors in adjectival descriptions e.g. a “leonine” face or a “mousy” appearance. The recognition of the inappropriateness or aptness of such descriptions follows from a historical and cultural evaluation, indexed to social contexts: Are these ‘good’ descriptions to use? What effect may they have? How have linguistic communities responded to the deployment of such descriptions? Have they helped in the realization of socially determined ends? Or hindered them? Humans resemble animals in some ways and not in others; in some contexts, seizing upon these differences is useful and informative (animal rights, trans-species medicine, ecological studies), in yet others it is positively harmful (the discourse of prejudice and racism and genocide). We learn these over a period of time, through slow and imperfect historical education and acculturation.( Comparing a black sprinter in the Olympics to a thoroughbred horse is a faux pas now, but in many social contexts of the last century–think plantations–this would have been perfectly appropriate.)

This process, suitably replicated for machines, will be very expensive; significant technical obstacles–how is a social environment for learning programs to be constructed?–remain to be overcome. It will take some doing.

As for killer robots,  similar considerations apply. That co-workers are not machinery, and cannot be handled similarly, is not merely a matter of visual recognition, of plain ‘ol dumb perception. Making sense of perceptions is a process of active contextualization as well. That sound, the one the wiggling being in your arms is making? That means ‘put me down’ or ‘ouch’ which in turn mean ‘I need help’ or ‘that hurts'; these meanings are only visible within social contexts, within forms of life.

Robots need to live a little longer among us to figure these out.