Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Does Obama believe in determinism, left-libertarianism or justice as fair reciprocity?

Dylan Matthews has made an interesting attempt to reverse-engineer part of Barack Obama’s political philosophy, based on some remarks he made in Roanoke, Virginia a couple of weeks ago:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me —because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
This point was immediately leapt upon and misquoted in a Romney attack ad, suggesting that the Republicans at least want to present this as a key point of philosophical difference between the two presidential candidates.

Matthews sees the debate as tracking the old philosophical dispute about the existence of free will and moral desert. On one hand, you have Obama sympathisers, who are sceptical about free will, and so whether people can ever be held ultimately responsible for their own success. This means that the rich cannot use the argument that they deserve their wealth to defend it against redistribution. On the other hand, those on Romney’s side of the debate are relatively credulous of the existence of free will, and so more likely to believe that the successful deserve credit for their success and deserve to keep their wealth. 

Now this is certainly a plausible reading of the dispute, and I think Matthews is right to connect Obama’s comments to luck egalitarianism, but I think this is only one of a number of ways to frame the argument. Even if it is a debate essentially about desert, the two sides might not map neatly onto the opposing sides of the free will debate. For example, someone who believes in free will might be in full agreement with the claim that the rich do not deserve full credit for their own success. All that the rejection of hard determinism entails is that it is possible that some people are sometimes morally responsible. But of course, this does not entail that people are always morally responsible. Thus it is likely that many Obama sympathisers believe it is possible (though perhaps unlikely) for rich people to deserve their wealth, but that as a contingent fact, in the present society, most or all do not.

In any case, it is far from clear that Obama’s point is about moral desert at all. Notice that in the quote above he makes only factual claims – there are no explicitly moral arguments at all.* I think this means, whether by accident or design, that Obama’s argument has ecumenical appeal across different moral perspectives. As I see it, Obama’s argument goes something like this:

Empirical Premise: The rich are not solely responsible for the own success, they were dependent on others in society.
Normative Premise:?
Conclusion: Some of the wealth of rich ought to be shared with the rest of society.

Obama’s argument can be filled out with the normative premise of luck egalitarianism: that inequalities can only be justified if they result from responsible choices. This seems to be Matthews’ assumption, which explains his focus on free will – without free will, there can be no responsible choice, and so no legitimate inequality. But there are other normative premises which can serve the argument just as well. I think the two most interesting, and the ones that are most likely to capture Obama’s point, are justice as fair reciprocity and left-libertarianism.

The basic normative premise of the position I call justice as fair reciprocity is that we have special duties to other members of our society because they are necessary contributors to what John Rawls calls “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage” without which we could not prosper. Elements of this position are sketched out in the work of Rawls and Brian Barry. However, perhaps the clearest contemporary proponent is Andrea Sangiovanni, who argues that “those who have submitted themselves to a system of laws and social rules in ways necessary to sustain our life as citizens, producers and biological beings are owed a fair return”. Notice that questions of free will, luck and desert are not immediately relevant on this account. What matters is that success was dependent on the efforts and actions of other people, and so these others are owed a share of the rewards. Whether Obama is pumping the intuition about luck or the intuition about dependence on others is unclear – I can see the argument for both.

Another thing that Obama seems to be doing in the speech is subverting orthodox libertarian notions of property. In this he echoes left-libertarian political philosophers. As Matthews notes, Robert Nozick saw questions of free will and desert as irrelevant to distributive justice – he was against redistribution as he believed it to infringe individual rights. On the Nozickian view, the rich (like the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain in his famous example) get rich as the result of “capitalist acts between consenting adults”. That is, the free exchange of property. Left-libertarians accept the principle that there should be no restrictions on how people use their property. However, they argue for a more complicated view of who initialy owns what. On the left libertarian view, everybody has an equal claim to the natural resources of the Earth, and so anybody that has got rich by exploiting more than their fair share of these resources owes rent to the rest of humanity. Thus they combine the libertarian respect for property rights with relatively egalitarian proposals.

Obama follows the left libertarians in pointing out how supposedly self-made men like Robert Nozick’s idealised basketball player utilise the property of other people, and society in general to achieve their successes. The implication is that they owe rent in the form of redistributive taxation. Thus left libertarianism, too, can provide the normative promise Obama needs to complete his argument. In the context of current American politics, given that his argument is clearly aimed against libertarian defenders of the status quo, the left libertarian interpretation seems like a plausible reading of Obama, too.

Barack Obama’s Roanoke speech is so interesting from a philosophical point of view because of the variety of perspectives he could be appealing to. In its ambiguity it underlines the fact that effective political interventions often lack the rigour and precision of good philosophy.
*Whether normative propositions can be derived only from empirical facts remains a controversial question in moral and political philosophy, but I can’t see how Obama’s argument here can work without a normative premise.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Should Academics Brainwash their Students? and Other Professional-Ethical Dilemmas

Related to my discussion a couple of weeks ago of the problems and responsibilities of philosophers engaging with non-academics, you might be interested to look at Simon Caney’s latest article (or, for that matter, the rest of the latest issue of Ethics & International Affairs). Caney’s paper addresses the question of what academics can contribute to the struggles against global poverty and climate change. I think he makes a persuasive case that academics have a lot to offer, and there’s little of substance that I disagree with. However, I think it’s interesting to focus on a question that he doesn’t dwell on.
Caney seems to accept that academics should be bound by a norm of ‘neutrality’ or non-partisanship in their teaching responsibilities, and that this means that their anti-poverty activities should be kept away from students: it seems reasonable to think that academics should not use the classroom to convert people to the goal of eradicating poverty”. It is certainly a reasonable view, but is it right? I certainly don’t think it’s obvious that teaching is ‘off limits’ in this way.
First, it is important to see what academics give up if they refuse to use their influence as teachers as part of their armoury. Like all teachers, they have the capacity to strongly direct the thoughts and opinions of their students, many of whom will go on to be powerful and influential, especially at elite universities. For example, Caney teaches at Magdalen College, Oxford, which has produced five members of the current British cabinet. If he were to persuade just a handful of his students of the significance and desirability of action on poverty and climate change, many of them are likely to take up positions (like senior government roles) where they can make significant contributions to these causes.
I can see why Caney wants to rule out such influence. There are obvious concerns about violating dignity and autonomy that arise with the prospect of brainwashing vulnerable youths. Some people might think these are sufficient to ensure that deviations from academic neutrality in the classroom are always immoral.
I think this position has a couple of weaknesses. First, not all deviations from neutrality are the same. The idea of ‘brainwashing’ suggests that students are passive receptacles, powerless to resist the propaganda they are fed. But influence doesn’t just mean telling people what to think. It can take the form of setting agendas. For example, tutors might develop optional courses on climate change or global poverty. They might go a step further, and make these courses compulsory. But notice that the influence is procedural, not substantive: students are not told what to think, only what to think about. They can still conclude that climate change and global poverty are not morally problematic. Thus I don’t think that these forms of influence are all that controversial. 
I guess what worries people more is the prospect that lecturers might push certain substantive views. Again, this needn’t mean dictating a worldview. It could just be a matter of framing questions in a non-neutral way, or pressing objections to certain positions a little harder. As I have suggested before, the ideal of neutrality here, merely helping others to better understand their own positions and exerting no external influence, is rather unrealistic. I don’t think it is psychologically possible to slough off your biases in favour of the things you believe.
But just because some non-neutrality is inevitable doesn’t mean we should actively seek it. The most important argument for abandoning neutrality is the potential benefits. I think most people would accept that sometimes it is acceptable to thwart or violate autonomy if the stakes are high enough. For example, if I believe it will prevent you from committing a murder, most would agree it is morally justified, indeed obligatory, to lie to you, trick you, physically restrain you. Thomas Pogge and Luis Cabrera argue that we should see the problem of global poverty as a calamity demanding exceptional measures – like the ones academics were willing to take during the Second World War. If things are that serious, if the stakes are that high, and non-neutrality can have a positive effect, then that is surely a strong argument in its favour.
This argument is particularly interesting because I think it might be a particular instance of a general phenomenon - a clash between professional ethics and general moral demands. Or, to put it another way, a contradiction between the duties attending to a certain role and duties arising from humanity. Another interesting example might be a person who hires new employees for their firm. While their professional obligation is to find the best qualified applicant for the position, they might think that morally they ought to discriminate in favour of disadvantaged applicants. Just like the non-neutral academic, doing the right thing seems to involve behaving unprofessionally.
Of course, there may be prudential or pragmatic reasons to follow your professional code – in both cases, there is nothing to be gained from losing your job. However, assume that this is not an issue – in either case, we can imagine that detection might be impossible.
Notice that in neither case are the job or the professional injunction themselves immoral. Indeed, we would think that neutrality in the classroom and picking the best candidate for the job are generally morally good things to do. This suggests that there might be epistemic reasons to follow a generally morally good professional code rather than your own ethics. The circumstances where departure from the professional code is morally right are likely to be extremely rare, and most people are likely to have difficulty judging them, so we should never depart from professional ethics, even if we think it is the right thing to do. (This is reminiscent of an argument for split-level consequentialism).
I’ve only scratched the surface of the issues around conflicts between professional and global ethics, but when the stakes are as high as they are with global poverty and climate change, it certainly seems a question worth pursuing.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

My Experiences of the British Citizenship Test

With Theresa May recently announcing plans to revamp the British citizenship test, focusing more on culture and history, and less on practicalities, the whole citizenship process has been back in the spotlight. Having gone through it myself, I think it might be interesting to offer my experiences, frustrations and comments. So here’s how I found it.

The first thing I should probably explain is why I had to sit the citizenship test at all. I was born in the UK to Indian parents, and have lived in this country for all but a year of my life. This means that I received Indian citizenship by default, but that I was always eligible to apply for British naturalisation. If I’d had the sense to apply before I turned 18, I wouldn’t have had to sit the test. But I put it off too long, and by the time I finally got around to applying I was 19.

The first thing to say about the Life in the UK Test (the existing ‘syllabus’) is that it is not as hard as people make out. Newspapers and websites like to shock people with how low their scores are on sample tests – only 14% passed in one facebook survey. But why would you expect to be able to pass the test without any revision or preparation? The information you need to know to pass the test is clear enough, and if you learn it, the test is straightforward. I think you get 45 minutes to do the test – I only needed five. In terms of difficulty, the Life in the UK Test is about as hard as the driving theory test: if you take it seriously, it should only be a formality.

The big debate at the moment concerns the content of the test. In my opinion, the “stuff on rights” and “practical info” that the Home Office is so quick to impugn is the best bit of the test, the only information that seems genuinely worthwhile to learn, independent of just passing the test. I can totally see the point of making sure that new immigrants (or indeed any citizen) know their rights as workers, how to make use of the health service, how to buy a house, the law on things like drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, the bits of the test that I personally found most objectionable were the bits of trivia – like what proportion of the country is under 18, or how many Christians there are. With these sorts of facts and figures, the impression you get is that you are being made to jump through hoops, doing nothing more than showing that you are willing to make some sort of an effort to win citizenship.

The biggest concern I have with the process of applying for citizenship, one that doesn’t tend to get a lot of public attention is the sheer cost of the process. The naturalisation fee for a single adult is £851, plus an extra £80 to pay for a citizenship ceremony. Even with discounts, that means that an average family seeking citizenship will have to pay nearly £2500 for the privilege. This worries me because fees this high are likely to be beyond the reach of many people, or at least put many off. The idea that you need to be rich to be British is surely a troubling one. Then again, it’s a principle which seems to ground a number of elements of current immigration policy. 

As it happens, I wrote to the Home Office to give them some feedback, saying more or less what I’ve said here. To my concerns about the content of the test, they responded that the curriculum had been drawn up by “leading experts in the fields of English language testing, citizenship training, employment of migrants and community development and integration” (I wonder how that compares to the architects of Theresa May’s curriculum?). As for my complaints about the cost of the process, they admitted that fees are “set above cost recovery levels”, in part to contribute “to the cost of doubling our enforcement resources” (charging current immigrants to keep out future immigrants!). However, they also argued that because “British Nationality brings many benefits that applicant’s [sic] value very highly”, it is right to levy a high charge for this valuable service. In other words, they charge high fees because they can, because applicants are willing to pay them. If this is correct, I guess it addresses my worry that high fees put off applicants. However, there remains a question about whether citizenship should be such a money making exercise.

I should probably discuss my citizenship ‘ceremony’ too. None of the official ceremonies on offer were convenient for me, since they all took place while I was away at university. I couldn’t receive citizenship without taking the pledge of allegiance, so I had to pay a little extra and have a personal ceremony, one-on-one with the registrar. While politicians like to describe how moving and emotional these ceremonies are, mine was at best a formality, and at worst a bit farcical. Having vowed my loyalty to the country, we reached the stage of proceedings where they play the national anthem. Of course, the registrar’s office doesn’t typically have an orchestra, so we had to make do with a tinny CD player, trying to maintain solemnity and not look each other in the eye. I’m just glad he only insisted on the one verse.

If I’m honest, this last episode seems to me like an apt metaphor for my feelings towards the citizenship process, taking something that ought to be a formality, trying to inject it with some patriotic fervour, and creating something pompous, preposterous and a bit wearing.

…Please don’t deport me. 

Friday, 6 July 2012

Should the old work more, or should the young work less?

Nat Wei, recognising the boredom and lack of meaningful occupation experienced by many retirees, has proposed a ‘National Retirement Service’, which would find socially and economically useful work for the retired. His recommendation comes in the context of a project examining how the government can help people to manage radical life transitions, like retirement.

Robert Skidelsky objects that this approach is fundamentally flawed: “We shouldn't be aiming to extend the domain of work into old age, but to extend the domain of non-work into young age”. His argument is motivated by Keynes’ belief that as the economic problem is solved, as we move towards a period of abundance and mechanisation, we should work fewer hours and enjoy more leisure. It has been calculated that the developed world passed the level of prosperity Keynes believed necessary to usher in such a leisure society in the 1980s.

Yet while Skidelsky presents himself in opposition to Wei, I’m not sure how much they really disagree. I think if you asked of each of them the question in the title of this post, they would be in agreement both that the old should work more and that the young should work less. And I think by examining this apparent disagreement we can better see the nuances that Skidelsky’s interpretation of Keynes needs to be an attractive proposal.

Wei’s recommendation is certainly inconsistent with a crude interpretation of Keynes, which sees work always as bad, and leisure always as good, once basic needs are met. On this view, people work far too much already, so any idea that anybody should work more is preposterous. Retirees have suffered enough, why burden them further?

But things are clearly not that simple. Leisure can be boring or aimless, while labour can be enjoyable, fulfilling and provide social interaction. Skidelsky seems to appreciate this: elsewhere, he has insisted that leisure is not idleness, but rather “activity without extrinsic end”. But surely this description applies to the proposed national retirement service, which clearly isn’t motivated primarily by economic considerations (the economic benefits of the scheme seem to be more a happy side effect). Crucially, Skidelsky himself proposes that the elderly should work three hours a week, suggesting that he accepts that such work can be beneficial.

So Skidelsky, unlike the crude neo-Keynesian is not against the old working longer. What, then ,is his disagreement with Wei? I can only imagine that he presumes Wei does not favour the radical shortening of the working hours of the young that he proposes alongside letting people work longer. There is no obvious reason for this presumption. Indeed, this idea of ‘smoothing’ work and leisure over our life cycles is entirely in the spirit of Wei’s insistence that we should make life transitions less sharp.

Even if this is the case, Skidelsky might object that it is mistaken or counterproductive to extend the working hours of the elderly without the complementary changes in the habits of the young. I see no obvious reason why the two proposals need to come as a package. We want the old to work more because they suffer the problem of too much idleness. We want the young to work less because they suffer the problem of too little leisure. Addressing one of these problems seems perfectly possible without addressing the other. Perhaps Skidelsky’s point is about priorities. The problem of too little leisure is worse than the problem of too much idleness. Even if this is true, it still gives us no reason to reject attempts to deal with the less acute problem. Though I’m sympathetic to Skidelsky’s overall project, Wei’s proposals do not seem to be a threat to it, and appear consistent with his desire to promote ‘leisure’ over idleness.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Philosophy and Public Engagement

Political philosophy, almost by its very nature, demands public engagement. There is something contradictory about a person who espouses a certain conception of social justice, or a vision of a good society, but is indifferent as to whether these are realised.[1] And for political philosophers to realise such goals, they will almost certainly need to engage non-philosophers. While it is more plausible for moral philosophy to be a solipsistic activity – I might only want to discover what is morally right so that I can put it into practice, and be indifferent as to the morality of your behaviour – it is still likely that moral philosophers will want to use their insight to influence non-philosophers.

Ingrid Robeyns and Jacob Williamson discuss the difficulties of such public engagement in a couple of recent blogposts. In so doing they rehearse many of the issues raised by Jonathan Wolff in his book Ethics and Public Policy, which recounts his experiences representing philosophy on various government advisory committees.[2]

The central problem is this: philosophers are regularly called upon to provide an ‘ethical perspective’’ on certain issues. But usually there is no settled wisdom, no accepted consensus that the philosopher can impart. They thus have two options. Either they can present their own view as though it were fact, which would seem to be an abuse of their position representing their discipline as a whole. Or they can present an overview of the different positions and arguments around the issue. But without providing any guidance on how to choose between the competing perspectives, the philosopher is liable to confuse more than they help.

The essential problem, as both Robeyns and Williamson recognise, is working out what exactly philosophers are good for. In a modern democratic society, philosophers are reluctant to proclaim themselves philosopher-kings with special access to moral truth. Even if they did, they probably wouldn’t be taken seriously. On the other hand, what is the point of consulting a philosopher if they are going to tell you that your opinion is as valid as theirs?

The answer they both alight on, and I think this is quite a standard response, is to say that the role of philosophers is to help others work out what they think – to be ‘philosopher-guides’ rather than philosopher-kings’. Presumably this involves things like pointing out inconsistencies, asking probing questions, and demonstrating challenging alternatives. Philosophy, this view would seem to imply, is something that anyone can do, coaxed on by skilled philosophers. The difference between philosophers and the general public, on this view, is just a matter of training and experience.

I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with this drawing of the role of philosophers, but I think that Robeyns and Williamson make it sound simpler than it really is. I think the major difficulty with their view is that they underestimate how much better philosophers are at philosophy than the general public (Which, if I am right, is a good thing for professional philosophy, but problematic for democracy). I don’t need to take a stand on whether this is because people who are ‘naturally’ better at philosophy are likely to become philosophers, or because becoming good at philosophy is not a quick and straightforward process, and requires a lot of training and practice. Either will do for my argument.

If philosophers enjoy a significant advantage over the laity in addressing the sort of questions they are consulted on, this presents two possible difficulties for the Robeyns/Williamson view. The first is that the philosopher-guide will find it hard to maintain the neutrality their role requires. I think a lot of people who have studied philosophy will relate to the experience of having an argument presented so convincingly that it seems impossible to argue against, even though it is really controversial. Given that this is what philosophers do this for a living, isn’t it possible that philosophers will bewitch their audiences without even intending to? After all, it is very difficult to present views you strongly agree and disagree with as if they were the same.

Just as worrying as the possibility that those who seek philosophers’ views will pay too much attention to their substantive positions is the danger that they will give them too little credence. Philosophy would be embarrassingly easy if dilettantes with only a few days’ consideration of an issue could form positions as plausible as professionals devoting their careers to it. If, as I presume, it is not, why should we pretend that the half-baked ideas of non-philosophers should carry as much weight as those of real philosophers? Why should philosophers continue to refine views that they will never have time to properly clean up (without turning their subjects into philosophers), when they have fully-formed ones to offer?

What I want to suggest here is that the role of the philosopher-guide is one that is extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible to carry out well. On the one hand, the philosopher risks putting forth their own ideas too strongly. On the other, there is the danger that they fail to provide the full benefit of their expertise. My worry is that the middle course between these two dangers is extremely narrow indeed.

[1] Although Adam Swift makes the valid point that at least one function of the political philosopher is ‘epistemological’: improving understanding of morality and justice, which does not require the philosopher to change the world.
[2] You can find my review of Wolff’s book here.