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Why Are Politicians Amoral Pimps? September 8, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, politics.
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They aren’t, at least no more so than the rest of us.

Matt Yglesias laments:

…I’ve come to be increasingly baffled by the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics. For example, Senators who genuinely do believe that carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to a global climate crisis seem to think nothing of nevertheless taking actions that endanger the welfare of billions of people on the grounds that acting otherwise would be politically problematic in their state. In other words, they don’t want to do the right thing because their self-interest points them toward doing something bad. But it’s impossible to imagine these same Senators stabbing a homeless person in a dark DC alley to steal his shoes. And what’s more, the entire political class would be (rightly!) shocked and appalled by the specter of a Senator murdering someone for personal gain. Yet it’s actually taken for granted that “my selfish desires dictate that I do x” constitutes a legitimate reason to do the wrong thing on important legislation.

I think this is a really important question that goes to the heart of the difficulty democracies have in solving problems. (for various responses to Matt’s query see here and here and Matt’s follow up here.)

The knee jerk, cynical response is to mutter that they are just bought off by the campaign donors to whom they must cater. But that doesn’t provide the explanation Matt seeks. Most politicians would not actually kill someone because their campaign donors want them dead. So why do they allow their parochial interests to overwhelm their moral judgment on big issues like climate change legislation where the welfare of millions is at stake?

Another cynical response is that people who are excessively power hungry or greedy self-select as politicians—so they lack a moral conscience to begin with. But that doesn’t explain why they would not consider murder but routinely allow millions to die because of their policies. Moreover, the premise is flawed. Congresspersons don’t have much power as individuals, except for the few who become committee chairs or party leaders which takes a very long time. And although some parlay their stint in office into lucrative lobbying gigs, I suspect only a few get fabulously rich. It’s not a bad job but given the obstacles to gaining office and the arduous task of continually campaigning it isn’t obvious it is a straightforward way of gaining riches or power.

They may possess some other peculiar characteristic such as a narcissistic personality or an excessive need for approval but that wouldn’t preclude them taking credit for sweeping legislation that saves lives rather than small-bore catering to local interests.

I don’t think any of the cynical explanations work.

Rather, the explanation is that sustaining a concern for the welfare of distant, unknowable others is hard. Such a concern is not regulated by a personal relationship and it is neither concrete nor immediate. In short, it requires, not only abstract thinking, but a kind of sustained caring that lacks an immediate emotional tug. On issues such as climate change, much of the threat lies in the future. We don’t know precisely who will be harmed or when they will be harmed or to what extent. And responsibility for these harms will not fall on a single person but will be distributed across thousands of people who could have halted climate change but did not.

It is a fact about human psychology that people typically discount the future, exaggerate uncertainty, and avoid responsibility when it is diffuse. Causing statistically predictable death is not like causing an actual death.

In contrast to preventing climate change, killing a person involves immediate, personal contact, and full responsibility for a result about which one is virtually certain. There are powerful psychological impediments to committing murder that disappear when contemplating temporally remote “statistical harm”.

So politicians fail to concern themselves with the common good because they are, like most of the rest of us, concerned with the personal, the palpable, and the concrete. And politicians if they are to stay in power must signal to their constituents that they share their values (and moral psychology). Most people frame moral questions in personal terms and emphasize local concerns. So do politicians. When you have citizens who refuse to use energy saving, compact fluorescent light bulbs  because they don’t glow as warmly as incandescent bulbs, it is apparent that the problem is not with the politicians only.

And we are probably limited in our moral imaginations because evolution designed us to focus our practical reason on immediate, local concerns.

This is the challenge that liberalism confronts in tackling long-term, global problems. It requires a kind of moral and intellectual commitment that most people find unfamiliar at best and threatening at worst. It was in part a desire to provide a solution to this challenge that motivated me to write Reviving the Left.

Of course, not everyone has such a limited moral imagination. Matt Yglesias imagines:

If some weird situation somehow resulted in me becoming a United States Senator, I would spend six years making trouble, having fun, and trying to do the right thing. Probably I’d lose a primary or something since I wasn’t bothering to raise money or campaign. Then I’d right a book about it.

I suspect Matt thinks this way because he has a background in philosophy and because he strikes me as a bit of a utilitarian. Making abstract, impersonal judgments is part of the territory.

But I don’t think the practical reason of most human beings works that way.

So I quite agree with Matt:

I think the underlying issue is one of the most profound ones humanity faces so I don’t think I have it all figured out.

No one does, but we better get it figured out–quickly.

X-posted at www.revivingliberalism.com

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 Illegal, the Immoral, and the Crazy May 4, 2009

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

Chrysler’s recent decent into bankruptcy was precipitated by the fact that some of Chrysler’s bondholders (especially hedge funds) refused to accept the Obama administration’s proposal to buy up their bonds at a steep discount.

Obama chastised the hedge fund managers, calling them speculators” who were “refusing to sacrifice like everyone else” and who wanted “to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout.”

Obama’s condemnation received a good deal of push back from investors and libertarian types:

George Schultze, the managing member of the hedge fund Schultze Asset Management, a Chrysler bondholder, said, “We are simply seeking to enforce our bargained-for rights under well-settled law.”

And the Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow slams Barack Obama for “attacking people for exercising their legal rights”.

Matt Yglesias rightly criticizes these comments for failing to recognize that what is legal is not necessarily morally right.

What Obama did was to criticize the hedge fund managers who forced Chrysler into bankruptcy for doing something that, though legal, Obama (correctly) viewed as immoral. Is that really such a crazy course of action?

Confusing the legal with the moral one of my pet peeves, but in this case I think the problem lies elsewhere.

It is an article of faith in our society that corporations have one and only one moral responsibility—that is to their shareholders to whom they are contractually obligated. According to Milton Friedman, who most famously articulated this principle, for a corporation to do something for the good of society, at the expense of shareholders, is a kind of theft.

In contemporary capitalism, corporations are granted the legal status of persons who can sue and be sued, who possess rights, and can make claims on the rest of society. Yet they are “persons” with one and only one obligation—to maximize profits for shareholders. If an investment fund can increase share price by a dime by destroying a company and throwing thousands of people out of work, it is morally obligated to do so!

As Joel Bakan argues in his film (and book) The Corporation, a person who is free from all responsibility except maximizing her own welfare is a psychopath. Corporate law has essentially created massive, unregulated, powerful psychopaths on which all of us depend for our material existence.

That in a nutshell is our problem today.

I discuss some possible solutions in Reviving the Left.


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.