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So What Happened On Tuesday? November 4, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, politics.
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The short answer is that lots of people lost their homes, their jobs, and their security for the future. The Democrats promised to give them some relief and they didn’t deliver—the public resents that. Since there is only one other party on offer, they chose Republicans.

People who feel resentful are not inclined to coolly assimilate the fact that Democrats made things less worse or that Republican free market radicalism cost them their well-being in the first place. The attention span of American voters can be measured in minutes. If nothing else, the GOP has proven that if you are going to fail, fail so spectacularly that the other team can’t fix it in the short run.

Here are a few facts that the majority of the voting public apparently don’t know:

We now have a health care system that insures thirty million more Americans than were insured before Obama took office, substantial tax cuts for middle-class Americans, a bailout of Wall St. from which the public will make a profit, a massive economic stimulus that saved millions of jobs, and an economy that has grown for the past four quarters. The calamitous job losses that characterized the end of the Bush Administration have ended and corporate profits are again on the rise.

But a recent poll shows that by a margin of two-to-one, those most likely to vote believe taxes have increased, the economy has shrunk, and the billions of dollars of bailout money will never be recovered.

As usual, Democrats made the mistake of thinking that if they play fair and do a competent job of managing the bureaucracy and the policy apparatus of government, the public will reward them with approval. But the voting public looks at politics as a morality play, not a policy seminar. The optics of bailing out Wall St. and Detroit while ignoring homeowners, small business owners, and construction workers cannot be changed by earnest management. Especially when Democrats themselves have a reputation for being handmaidens of casino capitalism and corporate welfare. Passing much needed health care reform is laudable but its benefits are too long term to affect this burgeoning resentment in the short term.

The GOP are masters at manipulating resentful, myopic, low-information voters; the Democrats wouldn’t know resentment if it bit them in the ass. (Oh. It did. We will see what they have learned)

At the close of the Bush Administration I published a book, Reviving the Left, in which I argued four claims: (1) Voters respond to underlying value systems, not policy proposals; (2) conservatism despite its superficial moral appeal is a form of nihilism, (3) managerial, interest group liberalism, because it refuses to articulate a competing value system, is ineffective as a political ideology; and (4) liberalism can be revived only by adopting a grassroots-fueled ethic of care that emphasizes our moral obligations to each other.

This election season tends to confirm all four propositions. Obama had to bail out the banks to maintain some semblance of a financial system. Had he shown the same care for homeowners and workers I wouldn’t be writing this today.

Although his campaign was vague enough to raise doubts, I had some hope that Obama understood (1), would fight to make (2) clear to the public, recognized the limits of managerial liberalism, and would begin the process of transforming liberalism into a viable political force with a powerful moral appeal. None of this has come to pass. My biggest disappointment is the utter collapse of the grassroots, youth-fueled organization that played such a role in his election. Democratic indifference toward that movement was obvious this election season. According to Ed Kilgore, “As Voters under 30 dropped from 18% of the electorate to 11%; African-Americans from 13% to 10%, and Hispanics from 9% to 8%. Meanwhile, voters over 65, the one age category carried by John McCain, increased from 16% of the electorate to 23%.”

Can we turn this around? I suppose hope springs eternal. Hope is by nature resistant to evidence but susceptible to vanity.

But without hope one has nothing.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Should We Be Optimistic About Climate Change? October 20, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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A new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has some good news and bad news for the planet. NY Times reporter, Felicity Barringer points to the ignorance revealed by the report — for instance, over two-thirds of the public think aerosol sprays contribute to climate change. (It is the ozone layer that is damaged by aerosols, not the climate.)  But on a more positive note, most people accept the fact that the climate is changing although they know little about why it is changing. And even more positive is the finding that they trust scientists to provide them with the information they lack.

Americans’ most trusted sources of information about global warming are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (78%), the National Science Foundation (74%), scientists (72%), science programs on television (72%), natural history museums (73%), and science museums (72%).

This suggests that the relentless right-wing campaign of obfuscation hasn’t worked.

But David Roberts at Grist argues that misinformation is not the real problem.

Insofar as lack of public engagement is the problem, the cause is not misinformation, it’s the lack of affective information — information that is meaningful, that speaks to core fears and aspirations. The main problem is apathy. People just don’t care much. Green journos and pundits tend to wildly overestimate the significance of accurate knowledge and wildly underestimate the significance of emotional resonance.

Those trying to spread the word on climate change have the advantage in numbers. The majority of Americans accept that climate change is happening and almost three-quarters get a passing grade — C or above — on Yale’s scale of knowledge. Where the denialists have the overwhelming advantage is in intensity. As rejection of climate science and climate solutions has become an ideological litmus test on the right, millions of Republicans have come to believe that climate science is not just incorrect but a hoax meant to further U.N. world government. They are pissed.

Very few of those who correctly believe that climate change is happening are pissed about it. More like “concerned,” the way people are concerned about homelessness or poverty in Africa, like, y’know, somebody (else) should really do something about that. Few write letters to legislators or hassle them about it in town halls. Almost no one will change their vote over it. No legislator stands to be primaried or driven from office over it.

In other words, all the intensity, and thus all the political risk, is on one side. For the political landscape to change in coming years, what’s needed is not a massive education campaign — though it certainly couldn’t hurt! — but a shift in the balance of intensity. The question is how to reduce the intensity of denialists and increase the intensity of climate hawks.

Roberts is optimistic about the future.

The backlash against cap-and-trade — not even the policy, the grotesque caricature of it painted by its opponents — won’t hold back the low-carbon tide forever. Voters already love clean energy; they think fossil fuels should be subsidized less and renewables more. The EPA is moving, states are moving, cities are moving, businesses are moving. As such efforts touch more and more lives, the issue will become less abstract. As people integrate clean energy into their worldview, intensity against climate science will fade and intensity behind reforms will increase.

Y’all know I’m not exactly a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I really think the death of the climate bill is a “darkest before the dawn” kind of moment. The larger forces of history are moving in the right direction. There’s only so long America’s peculiar, dysfunctional political system can resist.

I’m not quite so optimistic, not because of the persuasive power of right-wing politics but because of the peculiarities of climate change and the inherent difficulties in seeing climate change as a moral issue. I think it is a serious moral issue, but it requires a substantial re-conceptualization of ethics to see it as such.

I will have more to say about this over the next few days.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Folk are Not Utilitarians October 4, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care, Uncategorized.
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Via Ben Goldacre:

Loran Nordgren and Mary McDonnell wanted to see whether our perception of the severity of a crime was affected by the number of people affected. 60 students were given a vignette to read about a case of fraud, where either 3 people or 30 people were defrauded by a financial advisor, but all the other information in the story was kept the same.

In an ideal world, you’d imagine that someone who harmed more people would deserve a harsher treatment. Participants were asked to evaluate the severity of the crime, and recommend a punishment: even though fewer people were affected, participants who read the story with only 3 victims rated the crime as more serious than those who read the exact same story, but with 30 victims.

And more than that, they acted on this view: out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who heard the 3 victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30 victim people. Another study, where a food processing company knowingly poisoned its customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results. […]

[T]hey then go on to examine the actual sentences given in a representative sample of 136 real world court cases, to people who were found guilty of exactly these kinds of crimes, but with different numbers of victims, to see what impact the victim-count had.

The results were extremely depressing. These were cases where people from corporations had been found guilty of negligently exposing members of the public to toxic substances such as asbestos, lead paint, or toxic mould, and their victims had all suffered significantly. They were all from 2000 to 2009, they were all jury trials, and the researchers’ hypothesis was correct: people who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm smaller number of people. Juries punish people less harshly when they harm more people.

I’m not sure what explains this result. Perhaps a crime against a small number suggests an intention to harm, whereas a crime against many is perceived more like negligence.

But I think it is more likely that we find it easier to empathize with one or two people than empathize with a large group.

This is what the authors suggest. We feel more sympathy toward identifiable individuals than for abstract individuals. In fact subjects gave richer descriptions of the victims in the small number cases; and in the large number cases, giving subjects a photo of the victims seemed to eliminate the effect.

This helps to confirm that if, as moral theorists, we are interested in describing human nature, the ethics of care gives us a better handle on human motivation than impartialist theories like utilitarianism or deontology.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Face of the Other September 13, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care, Science, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who have read my work in ethic know that I think the writings of Emmanuel Levinas are especially helpful in explaining moral authority.

One main idea in Levinas’s work is that ethical conduct is a response to “the face of the Other”. In less metaphorical terms, this means that morality gets its authority from our capacity to respond to the vulnerability and particularity of another person which place demands on us that we are compelled to acknowledge.

And now there is some scientific evidence supporting Levinas’s view. Here is John Cookson at Big Think:

Is a person’s propensity toward evil a matter of malfunctioning synapses and neurons?

Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and author of “The Anatomy of Evil,” says it is.  Ever-more-detailed brain scans are revealing the biological origins of psychological issues in “evil” people, from those who are mildly antisocial to serial murderers.

Under each brain’s wrinkly cortex lies the limbic system, an evolutionary heirloom controlling emotion and motivation, among other functions.  Within this limbic system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nuclei that processes our feelings of fear and pleasure.

Murderers and other violent criminals have been shown to have amygdalae that are smaller or that don’t function properly, explains Stone.  One recent study concluded that individuals who exhibit a marker of “limbic neural maldevelopment” have “significantly higher levels of antisocial personality, psychopathy, arrests and convictions compared with controls.”

The amygdala is important because, among its other functions, it allows an individual to respond to the facial expressions of others.  When a person has an abnormal amygdala—one that doesn’t process the facial expressions of emotion—they can have an inability to register the fear and suffering of a victim, says Stone.  This lack of response to the emotions of others predisposes an individual to antisocial, even criminal, behavior.

Perhaps we should stop referring to the “face of the Other” as a metaphor.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Caring about Fairness February 18, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, Science.
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New research in neuroscience continues to have important implications for philosophical debates in ethics and political philosophy.

Via Colin Farrelly:

Political philosophers interested in abstract debates about equality vs priority and sufficiency should find this recent study in Nature Neuroscience of interest (as well as this News piece).

It is commonly assumed that the impulse to maximize one’s own self-interest is automatic and can be contrasted with the deliberative, reflective sentiments of prosocial actors who care about equality. But it seems that the decision-making of the latter is also automatic emotional processing. Here is the abstract of the paper:

‘Social value orientation’ characterizes individual differences in anchoring attitudes toward the division of resources. Here, by contrasting people with prosocial and individualistic orientations using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrate that degree of inequity aversion in prosocials is predictable from amygdala activity and unaffected by cognitive load. This result suggests that automatic emotional processing in the amygdala lies at the core of prosocial value orientation.

This is important research in support of an ethic of care and its political implications. It suggests that our concern for fairness and equality is rooted in the emotions, not in our capacity to reason impartially.

It supports my main argument in Reviving the Left.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Philosophy Talk February 17, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy.
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I am giving a talk on Friday for our Occasional Lecture Series at Mesa College.

The title is “How an Ethics of Care Can Transform Politics.”

It is open to the public so if you are interested in politics, ethics, and their intersection (and you live in San Diego) check it out.

The talk will be on Friday at 12:00 noon in LRC (Library Resource Center) 435.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Mercy and the Lockerbie Bombing August 25, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill unleashed a firestorm of criticism when he released Abdel Baset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds last week. Al-Megrahi, who was serving a life sentence for the death of 270 people on Pan Am Flight 103 that blew up over Scotland in 1988, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a few months to live.

Mr al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them,” he said.

“But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.”

Mr MacAskill continued: “Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed, but compassion be available.

This case raises interesting philosophical questions about mercy and when it is appropriate.

Since al-Magrahi’s release, many have accused the Scottish government of releasing him for diplomatic or financial reasons. To the extent these allegations are true, that would make the release a cynical political move rather than an act of compassion or mercy. And the sight of a mass-murderer getting a hero’s welcome in Libya was deeply disturbing for anyone but especially for the families who grieve the loss of their loved ones.

But I want to ignore these complications and ask whether the release was justified on the basis of mercy.

Many of the objections to al-Magrahi’s release miss the mark. For instance, some people have said that it should have been up to the families of the victims, not the Scottish government, to decide when to grant mercy. But that response confuses forgiveness with mercy.

Forgiveness is personal and involves overcoming feelings of resentment about a wrong. It is something that only victims (or those closely related to victims) can grant. Mercy, by contrast, involves someone with power over a vulnerable person treating them less harshly than they deserve. It often involves institutional power since institutions often have power over vulnerable persons. It is not about overcoming personal feelings. One can grant forgiveness without offering mercy and one can extend mercy without granting forgiveness.

Because the Scottish government had power over al-Megrahi and the authority to punish him, they uniquely had the right to grant mercy, although not forgiveness. The question is whether they were correct to do so.

Others argue that the release was justified because of the lack of substantial evidence against al-Megrahi. But that is a matter of whether justice was served by the conviction and sentencing. It calls for further investigation and appeals to the legal system,  not mercy.

Similarly, those who argue that the release was a travesty of justice miss the point. Of course, it was. Mercy inherently involves suspending a just outcome in favor of some moral consideration beyond the realm of justice.

Other commentators suggest the release was a form of appeasement which demonstrates the United Kingdom’s inability to stand up to people who have attacked us. But I think that is implausible. As Nietzche points out, mercy is a virtue of pride, not of weakness. It indicates an (often illusory) condition of invulnerability to injury through which the powerful demonstrate their nobility.

No. The issue is whether there were grounds for mercy or not. Although mercy involves suspending justice, it can’t be utterly capricious. There are conditions under which it is appropriate and conditions under which it is not.

The reason for mercy asserted by the Justice Minister was the fact that al-Megrahi will die soon, and compassion requires that we allow him to spend his last days with his family. But all prisoners with life sentences will eventually die in prison. Should we extend mercy to all of them? If the answer is no, then there must be something peculiar about al-Megrahi’s case that qualifies him for mercy.

Mercy involves  a judgment based on understanding the individuating features of a case that warrants a person being treated with leniency. It avoids rule-guided judgment in favor of discretion and moral perception. The mercy-giver focuses on the plight of a vulnerable person, his difficult situation, his vulnerability because he is in the power of someone else and therefore subject to an extraordinary burden or threat.

But the mere fact that al-Megrahi is dying doesn’t seem sufficient to warrant mercy. He is vulnerable and subject to the burden of dying in prison, but that doesn’t distinguish his case from thousands of others similarly situated. There is nothing peculiar about his situation. Furthermore, he doesn’t seem to have suffered from a deprived upbringing, faced obstacles to avoiding the harm he caused, and neither has he apologized for his act. Nothing about his circumstances appear to be mitigating factors that warrant mercy.

In general, I think in order for mercy to be warranted, there must be some loose, imprecise balance struck between the burden suffered by the recipient of mercy and the degree of malicious harm displayed in the original crime. In other words, I think justice considerations are relevant to mercy but not over-riding. Mercy involves departing from some existing framework of justice but not necessarily a departure from all considerations of justice. In al-Megrahi’s case, there is no such balance. He maliciously killed 270 people. Had he murdered someone in a fit of rage in a dispute over gambling debts, for example, the case for mercy might have been stronger.

Thus, I think there was a mistake in reasoning by the Scottish Justice Minister. Compassion could have been expressed more appropriately through palliative care and family visits in prison.

However, a good utilitarian argument for mercy in this case can be made.

The message of respect for life and the recognition that prisoners are human and vulnerable is an important one, to which we pay too little attention in the U.S. Mercy requires self-control by people who possess power over others. And that self-control is a good thing to encourage. Retribution is important in encouraging social cooperation but it can easily get out of control and lead to a kind of perverse pleasure in seeking revenge. Mercy has a civilizing effect that breaks the cycle of revenge and helps avoid abuses of power.

The U.S. justice system has a systematic bias toward excessive punishment, given the human propensity for revenge, the political advantages to being tough on crime, and the presence of social conditions that foster crime. Thus, our prisons are overflowing.

One of the remarkable features of this episode is the differing responses in the U.S. compared to the U.K. According to the Globe and Mail,

The move to release him was accepted with a measure of equanimity by families of victims in Britain, but met with bitter fury by their counterparts in the United States.

I wish we had a greater capacity for mercy of the sort displayed by Scotland, despite the faulty reasoning. We would be better for it.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is the author of  Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Social Brain and Liberalism’s Revival August 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, Science.
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Journalist Madeleine Bunting claims that contemporary science is demonstrating that our notions of free will and autonomy are “fairytales about as fanciful and as implausible as goblins.”

That is a bit hyperbolic but the general thrust of her article is right. Instead of claiming that free will and autonomy are illusions, it is more accurate to say that our definitions of these concepts in our tradition are fundamentally misleading. As Bunting reports:

There are two other areas of this new brain research which are arguably more important. First, we have much underestimated the social nature of the brain: how primed it is to recognise, interpret and respond all the time to the input of others and how that lays down patterns which govern our behaviour. We are herd-like animals who show a strong tendency to conform with group norms; what makes our brains so much bigger than other primates is this remarkable capacity for social skills such as empathy, co-operation and fairness. Instead of the old metaphor of individuals as discrete entities like billiard balls, we need to think instead of them as nodes in a relationship network.

This research doesn’t show that we lack autonomy. It does demonstrate that our capacity for self-governance is dependent on others. Autonomy is relational. We direct our lives through out capacity to respond to what we care about.

The second area of astonishing discoveries is in the plasticity of the brain. We talk of “hardwiring” (computers have generated many misleading metaphors for the brain) but in fact, the brain can be changed. Parts of the brain can learn entirely new tricks. Neural pathways are not fixed, and even much of the damage done by deprivation in childhood can be repaired with the right circumstances of example, support and determination. We can shape our own brains to create new habits that we might have thought we were not capable of – it’s a long, hard process but it is possible.

Notice that this doesn’t imply that we lack free will. It means that we have to define free will in terms of our capacity to learn. Learning modifies the brain in ways that enable new patterns of behavior to emerge. Unlike older notions of free will that require that free actions interrupt the causal influences of the past and the environment (which to my mind is an incoherent idea), newer versions of free will view our flexible responses to changing environmental circumstances as a product of our sensitivity to causal influence. We are not robots because of our sensitivity to causal influence, not in spite of it.

But this idea is not really new. Aristotle entertained a version of it; so did Hume. But until recently, it was not highly regarded—that is changing in part because of what we are learning about the brain.

And Bunting is exactly right about the political implications of this research.

This all may seem remote from politics, but it’s not. Jon Cruddas has a habit of startling audiences by arguing that the regeneration of the left requires a convincing new account of what it is to be human. Are human beings self-interested creatures or are they collaborative? The right’s argument for market capitalism is rooted in the former but the research on the social brain supports the latter. Put crudely, we are social creatures with an inbuilt tendency to co-operate and seek out each other’s approval and that is probably more important in determining day-to-day behaviours than narrowly conceived self-interest.

The rightwing emphasis on the individual’s capacity to triumph over their environment through willpower is undermined by the research which shows how childhood deprivation leaves such scarring on the brain. While the challenge to the left is to recognise that the myopic tendencies of the brain to privilege the short term has been held in check by institutions and traditions which can safeguard longer-term interests. Perhaps that requires greater understanding on the left of how such institutions operate and a revision of assumptions about why they restrict individual autonomy.

This is essentially my argument in Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America. We need to think of autonomy as relational and institutionalize the motive of care, which requires sensitivity to one’s environment and long-term commitment to the institutions on which we depend.

Philosophical theories don’t need empirical support for their intelligibility; but it is nice to have.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

On The Release of the Lockerbie Bomber August 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Criminal Justice, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, ethics of care.
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Via BBC:

The man convicted of killing 270 people in the 1988 bombing of a Pam Am flight over the Scottish town in Lockerbie, has been released from prison on compassionate grounds. Abdel Baset Al-Megrahi is already on his way home to Libya, where it is believed he will die of prostate cancer within three months.

This, of course, is an enormously controversial decision that has provoked outrage in the U.S., and understandably, among the families of victims of this terrible act. And, as the linked story reports, some people question the motives of the U.K. in agreeing to the release. And there are also serious questions raised about whether the original conviction was correct.

But assuming compassion was the over-riding reason, the Scottish decision raises lots of questions about when mercy is justified and what justifies it.

I need to think more about this, but it seems to me that mercy is not a part of justice but is a consideration independent of justice. So it wasn’t fair or just that Al-Megrahi was released. The aim of mercy is not to achieve justice but to bring to bear values other than justice.

Nevertheless there must be a reason to support claims to mercy, and the question here is whether the fact that Al-Megrahi is dying is a sufficient reason to support mercy.

Of course, all prisoners sentenced to life in prison will end up dying in prison if the sentence is carried out. If nearing death is a sufficient justification for mercy, that suggests that there ought to be a blanket release of all prisoners over a certain age. As far as I know that is not the policy in the U.K.

So what is special about this case that warrants mercy? Perhaps doubts about the original conviction? But that seems to be an argument for more investigation, not mercy.

I think compassion is enormously important and something our political and legal systems must encourage. So was the Scottish Minister correct in his judgment here?

I’m not sure. I will probably have more to say when I have thought about it more.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Money for Nothing August 12, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy.
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If the problems of health care and global warming are not sufficiently difficult to solve, there is another issue looming on the horizon that I have been worrying about for some time. Gregory Clark in the Sunday NY Times gives it some exposure.

…the economic problems of the future will not be about growth but about something more nettlesome: the ineluctable increase in the number of people with no marketable skills, and technology’s role not as the antidote to social conflict, but as its instigator.

The battle will be over how to get the economy’s winners to pay for an increasingly costly poor.

As Clark points out, despite the steady advance of technology during the industrial revolution, unskilled labor was still very important to the economy and was paid rather well, especially in the late 20th century. Machines have not been able to replace human communication skills or fine motor skills.

But in more recent decades, when average U.S. incomes roughly doubled, there has been little gain in the real earnings of the unskilled. And, more darkly, computer advances suggest these redoubts of human skill will sooner or later fall to machines. We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers, and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man.

We can now carry out complicated transactions by phone with no human interaction and machines are increasingly able to perform routine physical tasks. ATM machines and automated food service kiosks are only the tip of the iceberg. There are now fully automated factories in the U.S., and with increases in computer processing speed and improvement in the software to drive voice and vision recognition systems, there seems little doubt that the workplace will become increasingly automated.

Clark asks the important question:

So, how do we operate a society in which a large share of the population is socially needy but economically redundant? There is only one answer. You tax the winners — those with the still uniquely human skills, and those owning the capital and land — to provide for the losers.

It is hard to imagine our current ethical and political systems, which presuppose a work ethic, individual responsibility, meritocracy, and powerful resistance to taxes, adapting easily to these changes. We must learn to think otherwise, perhaps along the lines of an ethic of care.

Some people, such as Robert Reich, see the increasing importance of symbol analysts as a source of new jobs but Clark is skeptical that everyone will have the cognitive ability to perform this work. The number of people dropping out of high school or finishing high school with few literacy or math skills supports Clark’s view.


In the end, we may be forced to learn to live in a United States where, by stealth, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” becomes the guiding principle of government — or else confront growing, unattended poverty

I hope Clark is wrong about this, but he is not obviously wrong. The increasing importance of robotics looks inevitable to me.

It is impossible to predict how soon this will come about. But it is worth noting that today it was reported that in the second-quarter, non-farm productivity rose at a 6.4 annual rate, during a time of burgeoning unemployment. This means firms are squeezing more out of the workers they have. Many will be reluctant to hire those workers back—especially if new technology can replace them.

This brave new world may come sooner than we think.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com