Toward utopia?

I have always had a small-c conservative streak that makes me skeptical of utopian politics. The idea that human beings could, through their own efforts, abolish suffering, strife and injustice once and for all has always struck me as dangerously wrongheaded. Both history and my own religious tradition seem to tell pretty decisively against this kind of hubris. 20th-century communism is probably the most towering example of utopian aspirations leading to widespread human misery. Human nature is not nearly as malleable as various utopian thinkers have supposed, which tends to undercut ambitious programs of remaking society from whole cloth.

But there’s an opposite danger to utopianism, which is to become complacent about the status quo. Just because utopia in the strict sense is impossible doesn’t mean that things couldn’t be a lot better than they are. Complacency is a particular temptation for the privileged–those of us who are relatively well off materially and insulated from the more obvious forms of injustice.

On a more prosaic level, it’s increasingly evident that the fortunes of center-left political parties across the developed world have suffered in part because they no longer offer a compelling vision of the future that can inspire hope among the electorate. This dynamic played out in last year’s presidential election, where Hillary Clinton was perceived (fairly or not) as lacking the “vision thing” (as George H.W. Bush memorably called it). Her realism was ill equipped to fend off Donald Trump’s fear-mongering and grandiose promises to make America “great” again, however untethered from reality those promises were. And it’s no secret that the enthusiasm Bernie Sanders generated was due in part to his willingness to “go big” in his proposals (free college, universal health care, etc.). Again, it’s debatable whether a President Sanders would’ve been able to deliver on those promises, but he provided something like a vision of a better society and not just a series of incremental tweaks to the status quo.

There’s no easy solution to the dilemma between offering big change and staying within the bounds of political realism. Even our most transformative presidents, like Lincoln and FDR, were keenly aware of the limits placed on them by the powers of their office and the political situations they found themselves in. Nevertheless, it seems clear that without some animating vision of a good society, a political party or movement risks losing its reason for being. Maybe there is room for “utopian” dreaming about the society we want to see.

Toward that end, I really liked this article from Australian economist John Quiggin that I came across recently. Appealing to the thought of the great economist John Maynard Keynes, Quiggin argues that the left, broadly speaking, needs to reclaim a utopian vision of human beings freed from extreme material want; such freedom will allow us to enjoy ever-greater amounts of leisure and develop our distinctive capabilities.

In his 1930 essay “‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” Keynes argued that steady economic growth would eventually solve the problem of scarcity and essentially abolish the need to work to survive. Once the age-old struggle for subsistence was solved, humans could use their newfound leisure for other, more humane pursuits.

Quiggin argues that the end to scarcity Keynes envisioned is actually achievable within the relatively near future through a combination of productivity-enhancing technological progress and social-democratic policies. This would require a shift away from the obsession with maximizing wealth and consumption that characterize what Quiggin calls “market liberalism” (and what others call “neoliberalism,” Reaganism, Thatcherism, etc.).

Under market liberalism, the gains of economic output have increasingly accrued to the very rich, while the rest of the population has seen little benefit, and certainly not the freedom from material scarcity that Keynes envisioned.

This could change with a correction in policy, Quiggin thinks:

The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.

This is essentially the program of the leftward-edge of social democracy (or left-liberalism in American terms), and a kissing cousin of “democratic socialism,” depending on how one understands those terms. But it would be in the service of a particular vision–of moving beyond the “money-driven” society toward one in which human beings are free not to work and accumulate, or at least work and accumulate less. And though Quiggin doesn’t mention this in his essay, the environmental crisis calls into serious question whether a world of ever-increasing consumption and accumulation is even compatible with the continued existence of human civilization.

Yet our mainstream politics is usually afraid to step outside the terms of debate offered by market liberalism. Even left-of-center politicians (in the U.S. anyway) typically talk about citizens as workers and consumers first and foremost and tend to valorize the ulta-rich (particularly if they happen to be their donors).

But the great philosophers and religious traditions are virtually unanimous in saying that the good life for human beings consists of something other than endless work, accumulation and consumption. I’m optimistic enough to believe that many people would, if given the choice, prefer to have less “stuff” if their essential needs were taken care of and if it meant they could spend more time with their friends and family, enjoy artistic and creative pursuits, travel, appreciate nature, etc. This is hardly utopian in the sense of bringing and end to human suffering, nor does it require a revolution to tear down existing society and start from scratch (with the rivers of blood that usually entails). But it points to a dramatically different society organized around virtues that our current arrangements tend to stifle. As Keynes himself put it:

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

Given the current state of things, even thinking about utopia seems utopian! But as the Scriptures say, “where there is no vision, the people perish.”

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Tom Paine, the Bible and wealth redistribution

I enjoyed this interview with University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson on how workplaces effectively function as “private governments” and often act in oppressive ways toward their employees.

That lead me to this piece by Anderson on Tom Paine as an early theorist of social insurance. In Anderson’s telling, Paine was responding to revolutionary communist tendencies among some thinkers during the French Revolution.

thomas_paine2
The other Tom of the American (and French) Revolutions

He wanted to save private property and freedom while also solving the problem of poverty–the very problem that led some to embrace extreme, communist-like solutions.

Paine called for an unconditional grant of money to every citizen funded by a tax on inherited wealth. For him, this was not a matter of charity, but of justice. The earth belongs to everyone, so others are owed some recompense when property is appropriated to private ownership. Moreover, the value of any property depends in part on the social context in which it exists.

As Paine says in his essay Agrarian Justice:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

What’s striking about Paine’s arguments is that they anticipate later views about the common origin of property, the social construction of property rights and the duties that property owners have to society. (Recall President Obama’s (in)famous “You didn’t build that” line.)

I’d add that, although Paine was a Quaker-turned-Deist, this general viewpoint is consonant with Christian thinking. The earth does not belong to any human being; rather we hold it in trust as a gift of the creator. The Old Testament sets explicit limits on property rights, calling for fields and vineyards to be left fallow for the poor (and animals!) to eat from every seventh year (see Exodus 23). There is no absolute right of private property in the Bible, and any scheme of property rights that leaves some in destitution is unjustifiable and wicked.

With the Fourth of July upon us, remember that Paine is at the very least an honorary founding father, so wealth redistribution turns out to be as American as apple pie. 😉

 

Augustinian universalism

I recently came across a very interesting paper from 2003 by philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker: “Why Christians Should Not Be Libertarians: An Augustinian Challenge.” “Libertarian” in this case doesn’t refer to a political stance but a metaphysical position on the nature of free will. As Rudder Baker notes, Christian philosophers, at least in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, are nearly unanimous in holding that human beings have free will in the libertarian sense. This means that human free choices are genuinely undetermined and that human agents are the ultimate source of (at least some of) their choices.

Against this consensus, however, Rudder Baker argues that Christians should not be metaphysical libertarians. She marshals several arguments: It is inconsistent with an orthodox, Augustinian view of grace shared by both Catholics and Protestants; moral responsibility is compatible with our choices being caused by factors outside our ultimate control; philosophers have struggled to give a coherent account of how exactly libertarian free will is supposed to work; and the common motivations for affirming libertarian freedom (e.g., as a response to the problem of evil) aren’t as strong as they appear.

Rudder Baker does acknowledge one troubling element of the Augustinian-compatibilist legacy: the doctrine of double predestination. However, she contends that instead of abandoning the Augustinian view of grace and salvation (i.e, our salvation is entirely in God’s hands), Christians should affirm its universal scope. That is, if God wills to save all people (e.g., I Timothy 2:4) and God’s omnipotent will is sufficient to achieve this, then we can hope all will ultimately be saved.

What resonated with me about this paper is that I have long had doubts about libertarian accounts of free will (going back to my graduate school and undergrad studies), even though they seem integral to many contemporary efforts to describe the relationship between divine and human agency. For instance, many recent efforts to mitigate the problem of evil lean heavily on the idea that God cannot determine human choices. But even if you could give a coherent account of libertarian free will (and I share Rudder Baker’s doubts here), it’s far from clear to me that this does as much work as its proponents think. I also agree with Rudder Baker that it’s possible to develop a compatibilist account of free will that preserves our intuitive notions of moral responsibility. (She deploys a modified version of Harry Frankfrurt’s compatibilism, which is probably one of the strongest versions going.)

I also have long-standing sympathy with the Augustinian view of grace that Rudder Baker describes and that was embraced by Luther and Calvin, along with other reformers. When I was a Lutheran (and in a lot of ways I’m still theologically Lutheran), I often thought that Lutheranism’s doctrine of grace and its rejection of double predestination ought to logically lead to universalism, though many Lutherans seem reluctant to make that inference.

In any event, the debate will continue, but I found Rudder Baker’s paper to be a refreshing bit of iconoclasm.

 

 

“Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics?

I said in my previous post that some Christians might be worried by the fact that Ward’s Morality, Autonomy, and God doesn’t appeal to the Bible or specifically Christian revelation. Shouldn’t Christian ethics be informed by convictions specific to Christianity?

In his book Behaving in Public, Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar takes a position that is similar to Ward’s, but is in some ways more satisfactory (in my view) because he is more willing to draw on specific Christian doctrines. Like Ward, Biggar affirms a version of natural law:

To affirm natural law, then, should be to affirm the following: that there is a form of flourishing that is given in and with the nature of human being; that reflection on human nature can achieve an understanding of that flourishing and its component basic goods; that reflection on human experience can produce a grasp of kinds of disposition and action that respect and promote those goods; that all human beings are, despite their sinfulness, somewhat capable of an accurate grasp of basic goods and their practical requirements; and that, therefore, there are sometimes areas of ethical agreement between Christians and others.

However, Biggar also says that “revelation and faith” add both motivational and cognitive content to ethics:

None of this, however, makes the Christian theological salvation-narrative ethically irrelevant. It does not say that sinful humans have the motivation to do sufficiently what they know to be right, apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires. Nor does it say that they have the power, unaided by biblical tradition, to know completely what is good, what is virtuous, or what is right.

Like Ward, Biggar thinks that the hope for “postmortem fulfillment” can make moral aspirations more reasonable: “the presence or absence of theological faith and hope can determine what seems morally ‘reasonable.'” Yet, Biggar doesn’t appeal to a generic theism, but to specifically Christian revelation. An implication of this revelation is that there are certain goods beyond those identifiable by “natural” reason which are an intrinsic part of human fulfillment–goods like religious practices “designed to reverse our alienation from God.” In addition, God’s “revealed salvific ethic also involves a certain way of responding to injuries that other sinners cause: namely, through ‘forgiveness’ in the forms of forbearance and compassion and a will to reconciliation.” Although there can be agreement about temporal goods necessary to a relatively just society, the overlap between Christian ethics and other traditions within a pluralistic society will be “partial and provisional.”

I doubt Ward would disagree with much of that (he is, after all, a Christian); but an appeal to an unqualified or abstract “theism” obscures distinctive Christian doctrines and practices and elides the differences between Christianity and other theistic religions. For Biggar, the distinctive goods and  norms of action prescribed by Christianity derive their force from its specific salvation story. This isn’t an optional extra, but an integral part of what it means to do Christian ethics.

(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.

Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

Utilitarianism as “moral Esperanto”?

The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright has a thought-provoking review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene used scans of people’s brains to examine their responses to the famous (famous by the standards of professional philosophy, anyway) “trolley problem” thought-experiment. In the thought-experiment, people are asked whether they would divert a runaway trolley about to hit five people onto a track where it would hit just one person. Most people think this would be the right thing to do. But when the conditions of the experiment are changed, people tend to respond differently. For instance, many people say they wouldn’t be willing to push someone onto the track to prevent the trolley from hitting the other five, even though the utilitarian moral calculus (one life for five) is the same.

Greene found that MRIs showed that people who said would be OK to push the one man onto the track were using the portions of their brains associated with logical thought, while those who said it wouldn’t were responding more emotionally. He concludes that emotional bias–inherited from our evolutionary past–clouds our judgment. Because our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, we’re good at group solidarity, but bad at inter-group harmony. Pushing someone to their death is the kind of thing you could be blamed and swiftly punished for in a small group, so the idea of doing that lights up some deep-seated moral aversions. Green concludes that humanity needs a global moral philosophy that filters out these atavistic types of responses can “resolve disagreements among competing moral tribes.” And the best candidate for this is a form of utilitarianism.

Here’s Wright summarizing Greene:

One question you confront if you’re arguing for a single planetary moral philosophy: Which moral philosophy should we use? Greene humbly nominates his own. Actually, that’s a cheap shot. It’s true that Greene is a utilitarian—believing (to oversimplify a bit) that what’s moral is what maximizes overall human happiness. And it’s true that utilitarianism is his candidate for the global metamorality. But he didn’t make the choice impulsively, and there’s a pretty good case for it.

For starters, there are those trolley-problem brain scans. Recall that the people who opted for the utilitarian solution were less under the sway of the emotional parts of their brain than the people who resisted it. And isn’t emotion something we generally try to avoid when conflicting groups are hammering out an understanding they can live with?

The reason isn’t just that emotions can flare out of control. If groups are going to talk out their differences, they have to be able to, well, talk about them. And if the foundation of a moral intuition is just a feeling, there’s not much to talk about. This point was driven home by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an influential 2001 paper called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail” (which approvingly cited Greene’s then-new trolley-problem research). In arguing that our moral beliefs are grounded in feeling more than reason, Haidt documented “moral dumbfounding”—the difficulty people may have in explaining why exactly they believe that, say, homosexuality is wrong.

If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.

Whenever I see someone arguing that “science” can tell us which moral framework to adopt, it sets my Spidey-sense tingling. Simply saying we should all be utilitarians dodges a bunch of important and contested philosophical questions, like

–What is “happiness” (or “utility”)? Is it just the net balance of pleasure over pain (as the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, thought)? Or does it include “higher,” more complex elements (as Bentham’s protégé and critic John Stuart Mill thought)?

–Assuming we can define happiness, can we quantify it in such a way that allows us to determine which course of action in a given case will yield the most of it?

–Even if we can define and quantify happiness/utility, might there not be other things that are good and whose promotion should enter into our moral calculus? What about beauty? Truth? Should those always be subordinated to happiness when they conflict?

–Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. But can we know what the likely consequences of our actions are ahead of time? Can we even specify what counts as a consequence of a particular action with any precision?

Wright says that Greene studied philosophy, so presumably he knows this. And it’s not that utilitarians don’t have responses to these questions. But they don’t all agree among themselves on what the answers are. And these are properly philosophical questions, not questions that the natural sciences (including neuroscience) can answer in any straightforward way.

To Wright’s credit, he is skeptical of Greene’s advocacy of utilitarianism as a kind of “moral Esperanto.” And he notes that some of the most intractable conflicts in our world aren’t necessarily conflicts over ultimate values, but over facts. For instance, most Americans are, at best, dimly aware of our history of meddling in the internal politics of Iran, so they attribute Iranian mistrust of the U.S. to irrational animus or religious fanaticism. The problem is that we are all afflicted with a self-bias that inclines us to filter out facts that our inconvenient to our cause and which makes it difficult for us to view a situation from the perspective of our opponent. Christians would call this a manifestation of Original Sin.

UPDATE: At Siris, Brandon offers some thoughts on the Atlantic article and utilitarianism in general.