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Why I Vote (in plenum) January 31, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.

Josef has an interesting (albeit dispersed) argument for why he doesn’t vote. (Here, here, and here) I agree with (most of) his premises but come to a different conclusion.

I vote because (a) I care deeply about global warming, poverty, health care, wars without justification, and the fate of our nation (b) I think at least one candidate, if elected, will pursue policies that will advance the cause of what I care about, (c) to care about something without caring for it is to lead an alienated existence, and (d) one way to care for items listed in (a) is to vote.

To care about something but then do nothing to nurture what one cares about is to allow one’s actions to drift apart from the commitments that define who one is. That is the very definition of a loss of agency.

Josef’s posts (if I understand them properly) add up to a compelling indictment of our political process. I am taking some liberties here in the interests of being concise, but I think Josef’s argument is as follows:

(1) Our political traditions assume that people are fundamentally selfish and self-aggrandizing and seek to marshall other people to their cause in order to achieve power.

(2)  Thus, Madison (and others) designed a system, not to produce excellence in our leaders, but to prevent undue accumulations of power, thus protecting individual liberty and a diversity of interests.

(3) This is accomplished by giving power to states and to legislatures.

(4) However,  power now rests with the media that, ( I am assuming) in collusion with big government and big business, manufactures consent. That is, the voting public’s real preferences are being manipulated, in ways they may not fully grasp, to support the plutocrats who run things.

(5) This undermines the checks and balances, leaves voters ill informed, and fails to constrain their selfishness.

(6) The liberal intellectual tradition’s (Hume-Rawls)  commitment to impartiality as a way of dealing with selfishness is ineffective and (perhaps) encourages a bureaucratic mentality that enables the powerful to hold on to power.

(6) Thus our political system does not protect individual liberty or serve a diversity of interests.

(7) Therefore, the system is corrupt

(8) and voting cannot diminish the corruption.

I have some quibbles with some premises, though I agree with most of them. I doubt that, in a interconnected, globalized world, giving power to the states or local legislatures will protect individual liberty and a diversity of interests. That is an 18th Century solution to a 21st Century problem.

And, although I think the mainstream media’s influence in manufacturing consent for a corrupt system is deplorable, I don’t think that American voters are “sheeples” utterly without agency. They are being manipulated but are complicit in that manipulation.

But on the whole I think Josef is exactly right–except for his conclusion about not voting. 

Political (and economic) systems do not exist in a vacuum. They function within cultures, and culture shapes how political systems work. Voting will not change the system. Only cultural change will do that. But as long as people are not “sheeple”, elections can serve an educative function and help galvanize cultural change.

Furthermore, voting is about putting people in power who can articulate a vision that most of us can share and who can solve problems without screwing  things up.  If we elect responsible people with good ideas that can solve problems, instead of dimwitted, moral cretins with itchy trigger fingers, we give people the cultural space to shape our social and economic systems to serve our diverse interests.

Yes, the people we elect will be beholden to the plutocrats who pull the strings. But good politicians can service them with one hand while doing the people’s work with the other.


Why I Won’t Vote (Part Two.1) January 28, 2008

Posted by Josef K Buenter in Political Philosophy.
1 comment so far

I’m not here trying to persuade anyone. I’m not even trying to inform per se, but I am trying to explicate an idea that I think has something to it. Obviously I’m also very open to anyone who can offer an insight I’m failing to notice, and I’d be grateful for any detailed explanation that detailed what it is that I’m missing. But in the absence of this I will continue.

I’m also aware of my own elipsis that may foster false impressions, or may lead to a lack of understanding (that is unavoidable in a blog where the space is limited). To that end I’d happily respond to any queries that sought to draw out my thoughts more clearly.

In my last post I mentioned something pertaining to Davis Hume and I thought I might detail that thought out more a bit more assiduously.

Hume was very influential in noting what we might call the “grabby nature” of people. This is what I was noticing in many people’s desire to vote: the desire to get your way done, and by extension, using other people’s votes to facilitate the attainment of some perceived desirous end.

Madison saw how ‘factions’ did in fact work in this way. He saw no way to end the motives that create ‘factions,’ but he did see a way to ‘neutralize,’ or mitigate, their strength by avoiding ‘majoritarian rule.’ This protected the interests of small states from those states with large numbers of people. We often forget we are “These United States”— notice the grammatical inaccuracy we’ve adopted for nearly a hundred years?

Well we can thank Hume for laying the ground work that people like Madision all the way to people like John Rawls have tried to exploit.

Hume is the one to fault for being the first to try identifying impartiality (and later justice) with the ‘neutralizing’ of the “grabby nature of man” I mentioned above. The impact of this on Rawls is impossible to miss and is a great fault in Rawls, if for no other reason than that it makes it impossible for Rawls to deal with “retributive justice” in any meaningful way. It is Rawls’ Gothic detail that makes it so difficult to notice how much and how often he confuses “means” and “ends.”

Hume wrote: “If every one had the same affection and tender regard for every one as for himself, justice and injustice would be equally unknown among mankind,” and, “Encrease to a sufficient degree the benevolence of man and you render justice useless.” Hume saw the problem of man as neutralizing “the selfishness and confin’d generosity of men.” The uselessness of this conception with any notion of “retributive justice” is plain, but it is also false in regard to “distributive justice.” Rawls too had a terrible blind spot for this and it leads his ideas into incoherence, though his Gothic detail buys him cover from this. As Hume and Rawls would agree, it leads to the idea that all we need are “impartial judges” to determine a ‘rational solution’ to a dispute, yet this it perfectly in error.

I will pick up later this idea and finish it because I wish to be as brief as possible here, but as you probably know by now, that’s one of my faults.

Why I Won’t Vote (Part Two) January 27, 2008

Posted by Josef K Buenter in Political Philosophy.

With these two responses I sense the need to quickly proceed to Part II of my point, but I must confess that the plums offered here in these two responses are almost unendurably tempting to pursue instead of continuing in the manner I intended. I doubt I could have summarized as briefly as it was done for me here just why we are played like the pianos we are, with all the predictable results so neatly, and unwittingly detailed with these two contributions responding to my posting.

Although my original intentions were to spell out my philosophical concerns in detail, and then hope for an intellectual sympathy to fill-in any ‘functional’ gap with the readers’ own wit, I sense now that I might need to also furnish sufficient functional detail of my own to obviate certain potential misunderstandings. As it was mentioned here on this blog once before, this could be called the urge to misunderstand, which should never be underestimated. I think it is clear that many people are always drawn to misrepresent others when their own pet notions become a point of contention. It just doesn’t seem to be much of a human passion to render sympathy to views that are sensed to be inimical to our own.

It was written, ” … if your opinions are ratified, you have cause for celebration; if they are not, only then may you complain.” I couldn’t summarize myself in fewer words what it is that I object to more. The vote isn’t a reward for being conscious, nor is it a chance to vote for a prom queen, or for pet of the year, it may though actually be an embarrassing expression of your own ignorance, which would be a lamentable reality to face. But it ultimately begs the question, “Why should I seek to have it, or anything else, my way?” Why should I glory in having my ways inflicted on others? Couldn’t I be perfectly mistaken (and potentially a danger) if I seriously pursued my own interests to the exclusion of the interests of others? When you add the fact that very few people have either the time, or the intellect, to contemplate the effect of the potentially momentous choices they’ll make (that may very well affect millions–think of the Florida goofs who can’t punch holes), why should we encourage and solicit such incompetent (and dangerous) opinions?

I think the root of this misunderstanding can be found in a pervasive, yet tacit notion, that is accepted by many. It was Hume that pointed out this human urge that the two responses depend on. That’s why he thought of justice and government as a ‘mediation’ between the competing selfish urges. That’s why he made a point about saying that ‘ending the selfish urge would render justice unnecessary.’ Now I don’t doubt for a second that people of this sort are pervasive and, or, many, but is it really an axiom about public action we wish to accept without question? Why shouldn’t older people vote for measures against their ‘personal’ interests, and for something that may be in the interests of their grandchildren, or friends? Think of social security here. Why should we vote for something that may hurt others? Might we not vote for something that hurts us, but would benefit others that we may, or may not, care for?

To just take one type of example that most should be aware of, my experience of life (although blessed in this, I don’t think of myself as alone) has shown me repeated examples of parents who know quite well, and it comes easy to them as well, that for your children (to just name some obvious examples) you forgo personal interests, temper personal demands, mitigate personal goals, all in keeping with being a good parent. That no outside mediation is necessary, nor are reminders required, to pursue the interests of others to the exclusion of one’s own is a commonplace among parents, friends, and neighbors (why couldn’t countrymen be added easily to the mix?)

In short (and I’ll respond with more, but this is getting too long already as I feared), why shouldn’t people who have a more direct interest in any particular voting issue be allowed to make their choices without the meddling interference of masses of uninformed and vulgarly interested people?

You see, what’s really at issue is that the so-called ‘winners’ wish to have their success “legitimized.” This was a very Lockean notion. For this they need numbers, which is precisely my point. By denying them the ‘numbers’ they seek, we incrementally delegitimize their success, and hence the kind of gloating I sensed in the responses. To me I would be given pause, and sobered by the responsibility of ‘winning’ on an issue. But I sense only the desire to crow about such successes in many. In this way I sense the psychology of the crowd taking over, with all the rancid inplications. Politics as a football game is in no one’s interest, especially in the long-term. That’s why reading Madison is sobering, and perhaps also why he isn’t on many American’s reading list— few Americans risk having their conscience winning.

Logical Suffering January 27, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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More conservative “logic” .

 We’ve been told that teaching teenagers to use condoms encourages more sex. The result of withholding that information is more unsafe sex, more disease, more unwanted pregnancies. That policy is so unsuccessful that many states are rejecting abstinence-only, education funding from the feds.

We’ve been told that giving food stamps to the hungry just makes them lazy. The result is more hunger.

Now we are told by our Office of National Drug Control Policy that giving a life-saving nasal spray (Narcan) to heroin over-dosers will encourage more heroin use.

“Madras [Deputy Director] says the rescue programs might take away the drug user’s motivation to get into detoxification and drug treatment.”

I wonder what the result of that policy would be? 

As Mark Kleiman suggests, perhaps we should just poison the heroin supply. That will scare “em” straight. Oh, but that would be murder.

Why I Won’t Vote (Part One) January 24, 2008

Posted by Josef K Buenter in Political Philosophy.

Why I Won’t Vote (Part I)

I find it odd that I’m not expected to explain why I don’t eat broccoli, or like hockey, or prefer Paris to Costa Rica, but the fact that I refuse to vote seems to require an explanation. What I find odder still is that average people seem to understand my position much better than do educated people. Being a political year I sense I will be asked to explain myself more than once, and because of that I thought I might detail my position in one space here and base all subsequent fending on this posting.

First off, I’m not advocating that anyone follow my example, but I might have the temerity to ask that my reasons be duly and soberly considered. Some issues that find themselves on a ballot may very well be close to the heart (or the pocketbook) of any dedicated voter, and in their case I find it perfectly understandable why they may be moved to vote.

I might very well begin all this by maintaining that the issues of this election really don’t pertain to me, or even move me. Let the Indians decide the issues that pertain to them, I might say. But I won’t begin there. It is the very nature of American politics that I wish to put my finger on, not its issues. The political foundations leading to my nonparticipation have been known long and well by the finest minds of America, and spelled out much better that I can do here. But I’ll begin with some sketching of their influence on me here.

Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in 1876, “Politics have ceased to interest me. I am satisfied that the machine can’t be smashed this time. As I feared, we have ourselves saved it by a foolish attempt to run it, which we shall never succeed in. The [political] caucus and the machine will outlive me. . . When the day comes on which it will be considered as disgraceful to be seen in a caucus as to be seen in a gambling house or brothel, then my interest will wake up again and legitimate politics will get a new birth.” (June 4, 1876, Letters Vol. 2)

Tocqueville is something of an American mania, but I think largely because it is so easy to find and cite flattering and placating passages about America to suit any purpose. But the American psyche seldom taxes its conscience when it comes to some of his much more sobering observations. One idea noted well by John Stuart Mill (1840) in his piece on Tocqueville was the inherent dilemma of the American system: in a liberal society deference succumbs to egalitarianism and to a deep suspicion of ‘elites,’ and because of that our best and sharpest people will never get elected to office. This idea was fully recognized in the Federalist papers. Our system is not designed to promote the recognition of excellence. Rather, it is designed to defend us from the unfortunates we do elect. Ultimately, it is a system designed to mitigate the consequences of our lamentable choices. (How many will confess their vote for Nixon TWICE?—he won in two landslides).

In this past century Walter Lippmann made such observations central to his diagnosis of what ails the American political body. His book, Public Opinion, is a thinly veiled meditation on the ‘Platonic cave’ of American political discourse where ‘the people’ have been disconnected from their power by the rhetoric of the modern hypertrophic media.

Madison maintained that “all governments rest on opinion,” and in this he anticipated the problem that consumed Tocqueville, and later Lippmann. They saw in ‘public opinion’ the powers of conformity that would stifle dissent and threaten individual liberty. But for Lippmann the opinions of the people become much more ominous and threatening to democracy because the power no longer rests with the legislature, as designed by the founders to protect us from ourselves, and in its stead this power has been stealthily purloined by the media that shape the very ‘opinions’ our people are expected to base their opinions on. In this way popular “consent” is now manufactured by a constant barrage of ‘factoids,’ ‘pols,’ graphs, ads, and ‘consultants’ and the Jeffersonian ideal of each American duly considering the fate of his choices on his fellow countrymen has become a quaint and unfathomable ideal.

Instincts and Illusions January 23, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Science.

As usual Stephen Pinker is good on the science; not so good on the moral philosophy. Pinker’s recent article in the NYTimes on the science of morality begins by suggesting that, although most people would judge that Mother Theresa was more worthy of moral admiration than Bill Gates, such a judgement is an irrational illusion.

“Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care….I doubt these examples will persuade anyone to favor Bill Gates over Mother Teresa for sainthood. But they show that our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish. It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes and in psychology textbooks.

In other words, a rational point of view would lead us to judge moral worth based on the consequences of an action–utilitarianism.

But when Pinker describes the lastest research in moral psychology, that research shows why we are not utilitarians.

“Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, suggests that evolution equipped people with a revulsion to manhandling an innocent person. This instinct, he suggests, tends to overwhelm any utilitarian calculus that would tot up the lives saved and lost. The impulse against roughing up a fellow human would explain other examples in which people abjure killing one to save many, like euthanizing a hospital patient to harvest his organs and save five dying patients in need of transplants, or throwing someone out of a crowded lifeboat to keep it afloat.”

There is an interpersonal dimension of morality that includes emotional responses and reactive attitudes that often conflict with purely rational calculation, a view which is supported by MRI research in brain activity.

The moral goodness of Mother Theresa’s activity is not an illusion. It is the product of a well-functioning brain that responds to caring activities regardless of outcomes.

Aside from this peculiar account of moral illusion, Pinker’s essay is full of important information about the science of  morality.

Lies, Lies, and more Lies January 23, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

We already know this, but its good to have it all collected in one place.

“A study by two nonprofit journalism organizations found that President Bush and top administration officials issued hundreds of false statements about the national security threat from Iraq in the two years following the 2001 terrorist attacks. The study concluded that the statements “were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.”

The deception is too widespread to be explained by the psychopathology of an individual. So what is the explanation? Could it be an ideology that needs war to sustain itself?

Hell is Freezing Over January 17, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

It snowed in Baghdad last week, and

“Drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike are about to see something other than cement and 18-wheelers. A large billboard has been erected on the southbound lanes between the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel that reads, ‘Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.'”

That XBox Will Make You Crazy! January 15, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

Economists and social scientists have been devoting lots of attention to happiness lately. See especially Layard’s work. Here and  here.

The data seems to show that there is little connection between material wealth and reported levels of happiness (beyond the threshold where basic material needs are satisfied) and that the percentages of people afflicted with depression, panic attacks and anxiety are rising even as we become wealthier.

Oliver James takes the argument one step further. Not only does capitalism fail to make us happier; he claims it is making us mentally ill! Relying on data that suggests a higher incidence of mental distress in inhabitants of competitive societies,

“He [James] tracks how “selfish capitalism” generates insecurity and inflates comparisons; how a winner-takes-all competitiveness merely creates losers and a pandemic of low self esteem, with its compensatory pathologies around celebrity and status.”

The explanation is not implausible on its face, but the big question is why, if consumerism is so bad for us, we continue to slog away on the treadmill. It’s not as if the Nordstrom Police show up at our door step every morning and carry us off to the mall for a day of bone-wearying, debilitating shopping.

Throughout much of human history, people who could afford them, have been attracted to “bright, pretty things.” Pace Aristotle, perhaps an XBox is the highest good for human beings even if it makes us sick.

A Rational Immigration Policy? January 14, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

Economist Ryan Avent tries to be cool and detached when thinking about immigration and terrorism.

“One thing that I wish Democratic candidates would or could emphasize is that a more liberal immigration regime isn’t just compatible with better security, it may actually facilitate it. If you allow economic immigrants ready access to the country, then they have no reason not to come in through the front door, at which point they can get fingerprinted, get their visas and identification cards, be placed in the government’s databases, checked against terrorist profiles, etc. This way, we know who is coming into the country, and we know that anyone not using the front door is probably not a legitimate economic immigrant.”

Any chance this kind of thinking might prevail?