The Open Mind VII – the One and the Many II

One surgeon declares the operation a success, the other is still to close up, and we shall have to wait until the anesthesia wears off to find out how the patient is doing.

ShrinkWrapped and I have already reached some agreements, and may reach more. However general, abstract, or theoretical they may appear to some, they are a foundation for speaking more meaningfully in discussion on more specific matters. To isolate four separate of Shrink’s comments and join them:

Without any affective connection, reason alone will be insufficient to redress injustice….

A politics based primarily on Affective ties can easily lead to a society that tramples on the rights of those whose hold on our empathy are minimal….

Yet we also know that a culture organized around reason alone can become even more monstrous….

In reality it is impossible to divorce rationalism and affectivity.  We need a synthesis of the two.

I completely agree. It was offered among the comments that I was presenting a materialist ontology. I was not. The first critique to be offered of Marxism as a program – rather than as an analysis and critique of capitalism – is that there is no should in matter. I was making the empirical observation, indeed, that affective connection, specifically empathy, is a fundamental element in our sense of responsibility to each other. (I further argued that technology, though it can and does produce contrary results, has historically increased the sense and reality of proximity to one another, thus increasing the sense of connection, thus increasing empathic response, thus broadening the sense of responsibility.) Whether empathic feelings should be acted on is a further and different question. I stated that the benefits of action matter.

Now we have, materially, the means, but politically the ends may be varied, unpredictable, and consequential.

That empathy and reason both are necessary to satisfactory ethical behavior I think is empirically undeniable. SW offered the obvious examples. In support of empathy it must be observed that Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao did not enact evil because of an excess of empathy. Sociopathology is not the product of excessive empathy. Large numbers of human beings will never be able, or care, to ratiocinate at a high order level of reason on ethical issues. In some instances, they will be guided by religious instruction, but even then, and when they do reason to their fullest capability, they will be checked and balanced by natural empathic responses. So too are most people who do resort to sophisticated reasoning. Certainly, however, there is no area in which reason is more required to guide and even counter the uncalculated impulses of empathy than the political, in both social and international policy.

My intended focus in this regard, though, was not the empathy, but the sense of connection that develops from a wider range of empathic response, and, precisely, what our reasoned response politically should be to that sense of connection: what the proper relationship should be between the one and the many. I suggested by my introduction that the answer to that question might reasonably be different now from what it might have been in 1789.  And I framed the discussion not just in ethical terms:

“Proper” here might refer to ethics, logic, practicability.

In some of the commentary, there was a jumping ahead of the theoretical discussion to warrant that we should not provide in social policy for variously characterized deadbeats, losers, and system gamers. I agree. But this is reasoning backwards and skewing the premises. Let us posit that there are some who are genuinely in need, or a need that is common in nature to all. What should be the relationship of the many to those few, each of whom, individually, is a one, or to that common need? Should not those genuinely in need, or that common need, be addressed,  or not addressed, on the basis of some settled understanding of the proper relation of the one to the many – in which case, what is that understanding? Given that no system of any kind is perfect or even near so, are we willing to tolerate any level of imperfection in the application of social policy? We must first address whether that concern even matters to the discussion.

The purpose of this effort, as articulated in “The Reopened Mind,” is not to argue the usual disagreements, not to presume what the other believes, or to assert what generic liberals or conservatives believe, but to seek the areas of philosophical or ideational agreement that Shrink and I may have and in that process sharply delineated the points of departure into disagreement between him and me. These points of agreement and disagreement may reflect more generally on liberalism and conservatism. They may reflect only on us. We have found an agreement already, and there is another.

Shrink asserts that “fairness” is the “crux of the matter.” I think rather that the crux of the matter is precisely the subject I raised – the proper relation of the one to the many, which certainly does significantly involve the issue of fairness, but not that issue alone. That is the ethical question. There are also the questions I raised of logic and of practicability, of efficacy. One commenter offered that

The questions that drive our politics need not be moral. What is going to promote prosperity? And more than prosperity, what is going to help create a nice place to live? A healthy environment? A vibrant culture? A future for my children? Lower crime? What is going to promote happiness?

Shrink argued,

I do not think it is sustainable or fair for anyone to pay more than half of his or her income to support others.  My effective tax rate in the most liberal of states, New York, is at or close to 50%.  This seems to me to be a reasonable cut off point for the state’s ravenous appetite.  In reality, higher rates of taxation have been shown to be counterproductive since they encourage those who are able, to devote their efforts toward minimizing their taxes rather than toward more productive endeavors.

Once again, I agree, and in agreeing I don’t suggest that the effective tax rate should even approach 50%. To reaffirm Shrink’s observations in slightly different words, I think it both economically and psychologically necessary that the majority of the reward for human effort go to the person whose exertions reaped those rewards. The twentieth century is an encyclopedia of exposition on that subject.

Now, with some agreement established, I will try to advance the subject a bit further. I focused in the last post on the idea that the one and the many need not be the opposing terms that so many presume them. It is a complex subject, so I’ll offer just two easy, even obvious examples. One is free speech toleration of every kind of opinion, even the most extreme and objectionable. This is an example of apparently privileging the rights of the individual over that of the group, the one over the many, whose immediate sentiment might be to quash the objectionable view. However, most Americans, most of the time, acknowledge that society, and the polity as whole, is improved by granting this protection to an individual, who may in his view have no like. The political health is enhanced and the protection is distributed to every other individual. In this matter, I believe there is no opposition between the one and the many.

I make the same claim regarding a social program such as Social Security – intended very specifically not as whole, sustaining pension or as wealth redistribution, but as the barest minimum safety net. It has, in fact, over many decades helped prevent millions of people from falling into a depth of old age poverty and destitution that was once a fearful prospect. It has, supplementally, helped many retired people live above the minimum level, in just some very modest degree of comfort. Commonly entered into and supported by the many, this is a program that saves or enhances most individual lives while promoting a culture in which some minimal, decent level of care for one’s fellows is part of the fabric of community.

Now, the former example is not economic, while the latter is, and it is in that area where tension between the individual and the group is more concrete. Several commenters referred in different ways, with objection, to the notion of government’s coercing our assistance to others. The nature of this coerced assistance was unclear – whether it operated on an individual basis, where any of us will more directly experience a sense of compulsion, or via collective, government program. In either case, the concern was unrelated to anything I wrote, other than to raise a question, but the interesting subject to arise from the concern is that notion of coercion.

I said in my first post that government is a form of community. Community is either, merely, a concept, an amorphous sense of connection – relationship – to others, or it is organized: an organization. Organizations are administered, and administrations become bureaucratic, and one can easily come to define the organization in terms of its bureaucracy and thus abstract from it, and conceptually abandon, the community that was its originating force. So it is with large scale government, not only on the national level, but often at the state and even city level, at which citizens will frequently feel a sense of alienation from the daily levers of power and decision making. Yet this is the requirement that representative democracy makes of us – that we conceive and understand that government is both, at the same time, the administrative bureaucracy that daily runs it, and a manifestation of community created and periodically, democratically, redirected by us.

That government may be democratically constituted and empowered to make administrative decisions without our constant participatory direction does not render those decisions coercive. Indeed, they are fully democratic. Democratic government may make decisions and pursue policies to which very large minorities passionately object. In constitutionally and well-grounded democracies such as the United States, such policies are not coercive. They are the product of democratic processes. It is even so – it not being the purpose in representative democracies generally that government be directed by plebiscite – that a majority of the populace might object to a policy, and still it would not be coercive if not in contravention of law. With sufficient profound displeasure, the unpopular policy can lead to democratic change in the government. All this is part of the democratic process.

So it would follow that if sufficient support was garnered through the democratic process to enact – or not to enact – policies reflecting a commons sense of the relation between the one and the many, such policies, or non-policies, would be neither coercive nor repressive, but an expression of the democratic will. Here, then, a disagreement. When Shrink writes that

the state…is based on consensus coercion and force

I believe he prejudices the discussion. When a group chooses by consensus to be governed by majority rule (which is implicit in the acceptance of the democratic social contract), the minority, as well as would the majority, distorts reality through the manipulations of language if it describes its governance as coercion. To abide by the terms of a contract is not to be subjected to coercive force as those terms are normally understood.

When Shrink states

Ultimately, although I believe the Conservative position that elevates the individual above the community is theoretically preferable to the Liberal position which privileges the community, either side taken to extremes is problematic

I have three reactions. The first is that he misrepresents the liberal position. The second is that given his terms, my bottom line is to agree with him, yet, third, I continue to believe that in many instances the opposition is a false one.

Finally, I note a couple of profound disagreements, profound, I think, because their subjects range far afield from the terrain on which some agreement was discovered. Shrink refers to me as a “principled Liberal.” I understand that he means this, personally, as a compliment, and I personally appreciate it, as I believe him, certainly, to be principled, but it is otherwise objectionable because the modification of liberal implies the notability of the modification, with the baseline being something other than “principled.”

More significantly, Shrink writes

Obama’s malefic failure has been to destabilize that consensus.  He has not attempted to manage from the center, shifting the polity slightly further to the Left.  He has overtly attempted to govern form the far Left, abandoning traditional consensus positions and alienating more and more Americans by the day.

This throws us back into our very distant corners, where I will state that the only thing malefic in Obama’s presidency has been the reaction to it by his opponents. To anyone anywhere actually on the Left, the description of Obama as governing from the far Left is preposterous. Here it is like staring from the earth at a star three light years in the distance and another ten. From the earth, the Right, they seem very much the same distance away in the sky. The actual far Left is critical of Obama on multiple fronts, from his continuation of so many of Bush imperialistic war policies, to his significant retreats from far Left aims in health care reform, to his cooperative relationship with big banks and advocates of neoliberal economics and his excessive realism, in far Left eyes, on human rights issues. To anyone anywhere on the Left, Obama’s policies are mainstream liberal, with a foreign policy more hawkish than many mainstream liberals would prefer. And, of course, much of what Shrink describes as “traditional consensus” positions now were mainstream liberal positions in the past that at the time were declared by the Right to be harbingers of the socialism to come.

But then we knew these were not subjects on which we would agree. We have found agreement elsewhere, though, and maybe we can build on it to the departure points of our principled disagreements.


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12 thoughts on “The Open Mind VII – the One and the Many II

  1. AJA,

    The trail to “where I’m going” has gotten pretty steep, so it may be a while ’til I can wave from the summit.

    The summit, if I’m not hallucinating it, is something like: ‘Culture’ is culture-bound.

  2. “You believe in the idea that the individual is not as important as the community.

    This is not so. I have argued, tentatively, that many of the oppositions created between the group and the individual are artificial. but I have nowhere said that the community is more important than the individual.”

    Sorry if I have not runderstood your ideas correctly. There I go again, getting some exercise by jumping to conclusions. I do a lot of that.

    I have trouble deciphering your positions. I have a million anecdotes from my life to illustrate my points. I tend to work from an experience backwards to see where it fits in the generalities of the big picture. Just my way of doing things.

    Glad to see that you agree with most of what I wrote. It’s a start.

  3. AJA,

    Re: The 4 propositions on which you “agree” with ShrinkWrapped

    I’d like to ask you a question that’s preparatory for a later question. If I have this answer, I can follow-up by speaking to you, rather than making a speech to some merely-hypothesized audience.

    I would describe the diction of those 4 items as ‘philosophical’ or ‘scientific’; i.e., they give me the impression that you (pl., ShrinkWrapped included) are articulating what seem to you to be universally-quantified truths.

    Question: Do you consider those 4 propositions to be culture-bound, or not?


    1. Hagyan, I’ll be interested to see where you are going. While some of your descriptive terms are little strong, if I am right that you refer to the four statements of SW that I block quoted near the start of the post – no, I do not consider them culture-bound.

  4. I’ll speak up again for the idea that moral philosophy plays very little role in all of this.

    A country that is able to have 95% of its working age population be productive is going to be more prosperous and have competitive advantages over a country that is only able to get 80% of it’s working age population productive. So, there are advantages for a country that is able to make effective investments in the education and sanity and social cohesion of its people.

    It is also probably necessary to stipulate that having people starving in the streets would negatively affect our quality of life due to the ugliness of it all. Not even really a moral principle — I’m just willing to spend a few dollars so I’m not tripping over corpses on my way to work. To my mind, those two principles are all you need as the rationale for most government assistance.

    I would also stipulate that an economy in which middle class incomes are rising is more conducive to steady growth than an economy in which the income growth is enjoyed only by the wealthy. It is a point of economics, rather than of morality.

    It is rare that you need moral philosophy to judge whether the benefits of a government program are worth the costs — which is the conversation that we as Democrats want to be having.

    To my mind, indulging in moral philosophy gives conservatives too much leash to run off into their abstract ideology.

    The decisive differences that drive our political debate aren’t issues of moral philosophy but issues of risk assessment. For one side, the preeminent threat facing the country is Islamic terrorism and they are willing to spend trillions of dollars fighting it. For me, global warming is a bigger threat. This is hard to adjudicate because it is so wrapped up in people’s experience of anxiety.

    Only a small fraction of our tax dollars goes to ‘supporting others.’ And the 50% rule of thumb is empty.

    A country in which the citizens pay 20% of their gross income for Federal taxes and 10% of their income in state taxes and 20% of their income towards health insurance and 10% of their income towards student loan payments would not be better off than a country that paid 50% taxes but the government paid for health care and higher education.

  5. Government is an exercise in constructing the way we treat one another. From my manifesto of beliefs about government:
    “I believe that most people don’t want to be governed, but we need to be. Without some form of government we have anarchy. For most of recorded history humans have been governed by the “Golden Rule.” That is, he who had the gold to buy enough muscle, made the rules. Most people didn’t like that form of government too well. Those that are still living under that kind of government still don’t seem to enjoy it all that much. The ancient Greeks came up with a new idea. The idea was that government should be instituted by agreement among the citizens as to what rules(laws) were necessary to maintain order and peace. Today government in the United States is based on that idea with an agreement (outlined in the Constitution and our various laws) among citizens about rules for the purpose of mutual defense and to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe good government allows people to be secure in their property and person while insuring as much personal and economic freedom as possible. Fortunately, we can compare the results of different governmental systems in use around the world today. Representative government that allows people as much freedom as possible seems to stand out. One way to judge how it stands out is to look at the number of people who are trying to get into countries governed in that fashion versus the number who are leaving.”

    What we have in your debate with SW is the same process by which we try to determine laws, rules, and customs that we will all accept and abide by, even if with some grumbling. You believe in the idea that the individual is not as important as the community. I hope youm realize that that is the primary tenet of tribalism. IMO, humans are trying to move away from tribalism toward a proper balance of individualism and tribalism. That is what almost all the political arguments have been about and will continue to be about.

    You mentioned free speech as one area of agreement between you and SW. That is a departure for a liberal because in many bastions of liberal thought there have been attempts to limit free speech. Some of the worst have been on various campuses where they have attempted “speech codes.” Good for you for being for unrestricted free speech. I am aghast that Helen Thomas has been fired for speaking what she believes is the truth. Do I agree with her? No, but she opened our eyes to her true beliefs by speaking out. And that is just why free speech is very important. It brings out thopse those wrong headed ideas.

    Social Security is another area of agreement. Well, I’m a receiver of Social Security. Have been getting the checks for 15 years now. They have helped my financial status, no doubt about that. However, when I first applied for SS I looked at my record of payments (my taxes plus my employer’s taxes) into the system. They amounted to about $125,000 over a period of 47 years. I’m no actuary, but I did a rough calculation of what that money would have been worth had it been accumulating in a passbook savings account at 4.5% interest. It was enough that I could have afforded to pay myself what the SS program pays plus I would own the account and could leave any remainder to my heirs. When looked at that way the program is not such a good deal for those who pay in for a long time. The government was supposedly providing a forced saving program that would provide income in my old age even if I screwed up and didn’t save anything myself. Okay, but they didn’t invest the excess money they were taking in. If they had, the system would not be in trouble now. The idea of SS was a compassionate one done with good intentions. Problem is, the pols could not resist spending that excess money and hoping things would, well, just turn out well. The idea of a forced saving account was okay, but the execution has not been. Therefore, I’m not necessarily a big supporter. What will they do next is my question? My guess is that since I managed to save and invest some money for my old age that they will tell me I no longer qualify for the plan. Sorry about that., you old capitalist. There are others who didn’t save for their old age – they come first. Oops, there I go showing my cynical side again.

    1. Jimmy, I agree with close to everything you say here, but you write,

      You believe in the idea that the individual is not as important as the community.

      This is not so. I have argued, tentatively, that many of the oppositions created between the group and the individual are artificial. but I have nowhere said that the community is more important than the individual. You cannot find any such statement by me, because I don’t believe it. For me, the community is without value if it is not first understood as an aggregate of individuals, all of whom must first be valued in their individuality. And that is a liberal idea. Most of the cultural developments of the past fifty years that discomfort conservatives (not without reason) are expressions of that belief.

  6. AJA,

    Thanks. I found your first paragraph helpful in understanding what you’re talking about. I was led astray by your hyperlink to the philosophical literature on ‘moral responsibility’ (a tar-pit!) in your previous post.

    I’ll try backing-up and re-reading now.

    1. Hagyan,

      You elevate my discussion undeservedly to refer to any “theory” of affective connections. I have used that phrase, to my mind, in the manner of ordinary language, to refer to the emotional responsiveness and psychological identifications that humans can develop in relation to each other, at even the most distant remove and minimal degree. ShrinkWrapped could speak about these much more professionally and knowledgeably than I. Like the phrase itself, the phenomenon I refer to with it is no more than what can be observed countless times a day in countless and even the smallest human interactions.

      As easy as it is to observe the manifestations of human empathy, it is also easy to observe daily the small failures of it, and to note in history the monstrous failures. While technology expands the range of our empathy, and our sense of moral responsibility – and these observations are hardly extraordinary or uniquely mine – it also expands the range of our moral failures. As in the Holocaust, the technology can be a tool in the breaking of affective connections, in the degrading machinery of mass murder, but it also expands the opportunities to feel empathy and still not act on it. At the end of the eighteenth century there would have been no expectation that an American government and people would – could – act in response to the mass murder of some group of people many weeks of travel away in mostly Eastern Europe, or of some ethnic minority somewhere in Africa. Now we can act – always with uncertain effectiveness – and failures to act will always raise moral questions that would not earlier have arisen.

      An extraordinary element of the Posen speeches is that Himmler considers questions of empathy, as an obstacle to be (proudly) overcome in the exterminations, as, in a range of other affects, to be required as a matter of honor in relation to other Aryans while being withheld from inferior peoples. Only dehumanization makes this possible, and it is a conundrum of human personality that is well known in the Nazi phenomenon. But there are so many people far more expert than I on this subject, no doubt you too, who have thought about these issues with greater concentration than have I.

  7. Oh, come on, Jay! Coercion is coercion. Government is about coercion, that’s why there’s tax collectors, courts, jails and police. The law is about coercion; otherwise we could live in an anarchist utopia, no laws, no cops, no jails. That’s why the Bill of Rights is an enumeration of what the government can’t do, where its power is restrained.

    That we have evolved a system whereas the power of coercion requires a majority vote, and is guided by the rule of law, is a great civilizational achievement, but a rose by any other name is still a rose. Power is power. I surprised you have the gall to try that slight of hand on us.

    You have said a lot about empathy, but empathy is a personal matter. As a spiritual consideration it is better that people not wallow in selfishness, a meaningful life cannot be self-centered. Most religions preach that. Those are noble sentiments. But you have remained vague on exactly how you relate that to government.

    You say the one and the many need not be opposed; but as a matter of fact the are often, though not always, opposed. It’s like eminent domain: a new freeway may mean I have to give up my house. I may agree in principle that freeways are good (better traffic flow) but I really don’t want to move. I won’t unless I’m forced. That’s why we have rules about when government can use its coercive power. It has to be for a good reason. If I am forced to move at least I can know that it was done by a fair process. We, as a nation, have agreed to certain rules limiting the power of government and generally agree to live within them.

    But you seem to be arguing for some reevaluation of the relationship between the individual and the government. Outside of a general mushy moral argument that we should be more caring of others, what are you proposing exactly? What formal changes in our present system of rights and duties would you change?

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