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The Tyranny of Kant September 14, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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This study is from the “well, duh” file but it is still interesting.

Are rules made to be broken — or obeyed? Newly published research suggests your answer to that question depends largely upon whether you are mulling it over from a position of power.

“In determining whether an act is right or wrong, the powerful focus on whether rules and principles are violated, whereas the powerless focus on the consequences,” states the study “How Power Influences Moral Thinking,” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “For this reason, the powerful are also more inclined to stick to the rules — irrespective of whether this has positive or negative effects — while the powerless are more inclined to make exceptions.” […]

…50 students were assigned to play the role of either manager or employee of a fictional company. “Participants were presented with two reward systems, of which one was outcome-based and another rule-based, and were asked to indicate which of the two criteria they thought was the fairest.”

The “managers” were more inclined to vote for the rules-based criterion, while the “employees” were more likely to contend that the ultimate results of a worker’s efforts were more important than whether they strictly followed company guidelines.

For the uninitiated, philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that morality is fundamentally rule guided. But as far as I know, Kant was not in charge of anything (except himself).

Actually, my reference to Kant here is a bit unfair to Kant. I don’t think this study tells us much about whether moral reasoning ought to be rule-guided or outcome guided.

The researchers did find one exception to this pattern. In a final test, which was constructed so that rule-based thinking would not work to the advantage of the powerful, participants in the high-power category were less inclined than their low-power counterparts to endorse playing by the rules. Self-interest apparently trumps abstract ethical concepts.

Hence, this belongs in the “duh” file. People in power like rules because they make or enforce the rules and can manipulate them to help preserve their dominance. People who lack power don’t like rules because they had no hand in devising them, can’t control their enforcement, and they work to their disadvantage.

Of course, anyone who has held a job already knows this.

Kant had a job—he was a professor of philosophy; but perhaps his department chair was benign. At any rate, I don’t think Kant was sufficiently aware of how rules can serve the powerful.

Although, apparently, he was right about the importance of autonomy.

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 Road to Imperial Ruin March 31, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left..

One of the main themes of Reviving the Left is that the ethics of care is relevant in the political arena in areas such as foreign policy.

Unlike moral theories that strive for universality, and thus focus on what human beings have in common, the ethics of care rests prescriptions on knowledge of particular persons, their circumstances, and their differences, and the cultivation of empathy and perceptiveness to gain such knowledge.

Matt Yglesias makes a point about our approach to Pakistan that implicitly reinforces the importance of an ethic of care.

In responding to the argument that we may not be able to trust the Pakistanis to root out the Taliban and Al-Quaeda from tribal areas he writes:

“This sort of thing is, in my view, really the achilles heel of the American imperial project….And when we get involved in things like the internal politics of Pakistan, or political reform in Egypt, or wars in the Horn of Africa, and so forth we’re dealing in situations where the level of understanding is incredibly asymmetric. If you go to pretty much any country in the world, you’ll find that educated people there know more about the United States than you do about their country. Nobody at highest levels of the American government speaks Urdu. Or Arabic. Or Amharic or Somali or Pashto or Tajik.

Lots of people at high levels in the Pakistani government speak English….they have a vast bounty of media outlets to peruse to gather intelligence. And year-in and year-out Pakistan cares about the same smallish set of countries—Pakistani officials are always focused on issue in their region and issues with the United States. Our officials dance around—the Balkans are important this decade, Central Asia the next, Russia and the Persian Gulf flit on and off the radar, sometimes we notice what’s happening in Mexico, etc.

In other words, in a straightforward contest of power between the United States and Pakistan, we can of course win. But in a scenario where we are trying to manipulate the situation in Pakistan in such-and-such a way and Pakistani actors are trying to manipulate the situation for their own ends, the odds of us actually outwitting the Pakistanis are terrible. They’re in a much better position to manipulate us than we are them.

This is one reason why so many of our foreign policy and foreign aid initiatives go wrong. We assume that other people are like us. We assume they share our interests, habits of communication, and ways of looking at the world because we assume our way is simply the human way.

And these assumptions are encouraged by our dominant moral theories (e.g. Kantian or utilitarian theories) that enjoin us to act only on prescriptions on which it would be rational for anyone to act. Our moral reflection tends to take place on a very general and very generic level.