Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Deliberative vs. Participatory citizens

This is an interesting passage from Jason Brennan’s The Ethics of Voting:

Let’s describe two kinds of democratic citizens.

1.  Deliberative citizens have frequent crosscutting political discussion.  That is, they frequently consider and respond to contrary views.  They are careful in forming their own political preferences.  They are able to articulate good reasons on behalf of contrary views.  They have high levels of political knowledge.

2.  Participatory citizens engage heavily with politics.  They run for office, run campaigns, vote, give money to campaigns, attend town hall meetings, engage in protests, write letters to the editor, etc.
Diana Mutz’s empirical work shows that deliberation and participation do not come together.  Deliberative citizens do not participate much, and participatory citizens do not deliberate much.  The people who are most active in politics tend to be (in my words, not Mutz’s) cartoon ideologues.  The people who are most careful in formulating their own political views and who spend the most time consulting contrary views tend not to participate in politics.

Being exposed to contrary points of views tends to lessen one’s enthusiasm for one’s own political views.  Deliberation with others who hold contrary views tends to make one ambivalent and apathetic about politics.  True believers make better activists than cautious, self-skeptical thinkers.  (Imagine a street evangelist saying, “Hear ye!  My religion might be the one truth path, but, you know, there are good grounds for doubt!”)  Crosscutting political exposure decreases the likelihood that a person will vote, reduces the number of political activities a person engages in, and makes people take longer to decide how to vote.

 In contrast, active, participatory citizens tend not to engage in much deliberation and tend not to have much crosscutting political discussion. Instead, they seek out and interact only with others with whom they already agree. When asked why other people hold contrary points of view, participatory citizens tend to respond that others must be stupid or corrupt. Participatory citizens are often unable to give charitable explanations of why people might hold contrary views. (This is worrisome, because people who tend to demonize all contrary views tend to be unjustified in their own views).

Quote of the Day

From Loren Lomasky, Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered, 15 Social Philosophy & Policy 350, 369-70 (1998):

That brings us to the question of that which is beyond the pale of toleration by cooperative libertarians. I do not have any neat schematism for the display of these breaches. Rather, I can offer nothing more exact than this rule of thumb: All those measures that deliberately or foreseeably trample on the rights-respecting activity of some to advance the interests or designs of others merit all the disdain and noncooperation libertarians can muster. If slavery were still around and enjoyed the support of millions of one's compatriots, it would be the paradigm of an institution with which no accommodation is possible. But it is not exactly bold and provocative theorizing to send one's moral principles into battle against Simon Legree. Since slavery is blessedly dormant, the War on Drugs is perhaps the best example of a contemporary practice enjoying wide popularity with which libertarians must conscientiously refuse any degree of accommodation. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have been jailed for illicit chemical consumption; civil rights have been obliterated by glinty-eyed G-Men; vast swatches of our cities have been rendered unlivable by fallout from the battles. To be sure, drug crusaders have offered rationales for these policies, rationales that invoke timehonored moral concepts. Some drug warriors profess that by threatening to lock up drug users and then carrying out those threats, they are acting for the sake of the users' good. It is a wondrous if not entirely benign feature of human lips that they can be employed to say virtually anything. This is one of those cases where discernment is needed to distinguish between the plausible and the pathetic. The level of discernment which is needed to see through the various drug czars' rhetoric does not, I confess, seem to me to be great. Whether great or small, though, I do not see that a conscientious libertarian can have any truck with this crusade. One may not relieve oneself of the burden of one's unpleasant neighbor by informing the authorities where he keeps his stash, and one may not become one of those authorities. Period

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quote of the Day

I highly recommend Loren Lomasky’s Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered, 15 Social Philosophy & Policy 350 (1998).  This article deals clearly with many issues I have been thinking about, specifically the relation between libertarianism and democracy.  Indeed, the fundamental issue Lomasky sets out to resolve is the relation between two facts (if one is a libertarian): (1) Libertarianism is the correct political morality, (2) the vast majority of our fellow citizens disagree with the status of libertarianism.  Here is an excerpt:

“For those who believe that libertarian precepts can be read off the book of nature by all those who enjoy the moral equivalent of something like a tenth-grade reading level, it is virtually unavoidable that those who fail to subscribe to libertarianism will be regarded as dunces or as wicked. The alternative libertarianism, what I shall refer to as cooperative libertarianism, is more generous. It is willing to concede that the nonlibertarians among whom one lives are mostly well-meaning, honorable people with whom one may cooperate without thereby dishonoring oneself. (Of course, just as the fact that one is paranoid does not mean that one has no real enemies, so too are there nonlibertarians—and libertarians!—who genuinely are evil and stupid.) Nonlibertarians are, to be sure, importantly mistaken concerning a momentous matter, but that mistake discredits neither their intellect nor their character. Possession of moderate goodwill and moderate intelligence do not immunize people from statist persuasions. Indeed, neither does an abundance of goodwill and intelligence. That is because the moral terrain that must be traversed in order to arrive at the libertarian destination is steep, rocky, and dotted with mirages. Nongeneralizable items within one's personal experience heavily influence the likelihood that one will achieve that happy consummation. Rawls refers to these epistemic obstacles as the "burdens of judgment.”  Let me offer some examples that specifically relate to acceptance of (L). …” [at 360].

Vallier's Libertarian Rehabilitation of Hobbes

Check out Kevin Vallier's interesting post on Hobbes, public reason, and libertarianism.  From the post:

However, the problem with traditional libertarians is that they confine the range of reasonable disagreement to disputes about how to make libertarian property rights more determinate and resolve disputes among legitimate property holders. In other words, they think the range of disagreement is rather small and so arbiters have limited authority.

But let’s confront traditional libertarians with an undeniable truth: reasonable people disagree about way more political and moral matters than the scope of libertarian property rights. In fact, the large majority of reasonable people find libertarian conceptions of property rights deeply objectionable. And many of those reasonable disagreements remain after they become familiar with libertarian arguments.

So let me pose a question to traditional libertarians (related to one of my previous posts): you want to set up a libertarian society because you think it is required by justice and to serve the common good. But your free and equal fellows reasonably reject your conception of property rights. As a result, the coercion you are prepared to use to defend your property against their encroachments will be coercion that they have strong reason to reject.

Libertarians avoid the problem of private judgment by implicitly assuming that libertarian property rights are the default no-coercion point. A society without coercion is a society with property rights. But that’s false. Property rights are coercive. That does not mean that property rights cannot be justified. It just means that the coercion involved in defending property rights must be justified to all persons.


Traditional libertarian, in at least one sense, Hobbes was less authoritarian than you.

Take a look at the whole post. Worth the read. I had a follow up comment in the Comments section:

Great post, Kevin, although I prefer more of a Lockean framework (very similar to Hobbes on the need for public authority due to differing interpretations of right reason, the umpire function, etc.).

Doesnt Hobbes allow for an existing Sovereign to conquer others, and thus, in the end, all that really matters is the power/ability to enforce norms?

How much of this relies on a prescriptivist view of "moral talk"? Is the Gausian view undermined if moral practice and moral claims are not authoritarian in the face of disagreement?

Gaus seems to pooh pooh the particularity problem (see OPR, p. 471, n.39), but it seems to me that he simply pushes it back a level to the level of "social morality." Hobbes and contractualism also seem unable to adequately answer Simmons: who ought to be subject to the contractarian requirements in the first place? What makes up a legitimate polity? How do we determine the boundaries? I'm not pursuaded by the "well, we'll just rely on history to answer that one" argument.

Kevin's response:

I think that constructivists about moral and political authority (which includes most contractarians) will answer that moral authority requires shared norms, practices, ideas, etc. The reason that Rawls privileges nations, in my view, is that they have a much higher degree of shared social practices and ideas and so can form a moral and political order with a thick enough set of norms to warrant other nations treating them as a unit. I think Jerry has a similar view, though he explicitly extends public justification to trade networks, as I remember from OPR. You might also read the appendix in Justificatory Liberalism on this subject.         

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Kevin Vallier has a good post over at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism on contractualism.  I highly recommend it.  One point I would like to highlight. He does a good job of illustrating what I think most people are confused about in assessing contemporary contractualism: it's not about agreement or consent, but justification.

II. Justification, Not Consent
Most readers will think that contractualism rests on the idea of a contract (true) that in turn depends on a conception of consent (false). The traditional social contract views (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) did rely on consent and agreement. But the contractualist tradition in political theory has evolved away from an ideal of actual agreement and hypothetical agreement. That is, the social contract does not consist in rules we have actually agreed to (which everyone and their mom has pointed out for three hundred years) or rules we would only hypothetically agree to (which everyone and their mom has pointed out can’t really generate obligations). Sam Freeman puts it this way: the “role of unanimous collective agreement” is in showing “what we have reasons to do in our social and political relations.” Agreement itself is not the binding act. Instead, agreement is reason-revealing.

Thus, the core normative idea of social contract theory (contractualism) is not consent or agreement but justification. As Rawls said of his original position, its aim is to settle “the question of justification … by working out a problem of deliberation.” (TJ, 16) Or as Gaus has put it, “Contractualism is … best understood as a method for publicly justifying the public moral code of a society. Seen in this light, the idea of ‘consent’ – or indeed ‘agreement’ – is only heuristic.” (Value and Justification, 328)

The social contract in contemporary political philosophy is the attempt to solve a justificatory problem by converting it into a deliberative problem. Justifying social arrangements requires showing that all citizens have sufficient reason to accept the arrangement.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The morality of human extinction

Suppose that a social practice emerged that led people to disvalue parenting and thus to forebear from having children.  Also, this social practice enabled all individuals to lead peaceful, prosperous, and valuable lives.  Suppose also that at some point all of humanity comes to engage in this practice, thus leading all of humanity to disvalue parenting and cease having children.  As a result, this practice leads to a point where humanity eventually dies out: the human species goes extinct, but in the process all individuals lead valuable lives, maximizing goal and desire satisfaction.

The question is this: if a social practice were to lead to all people living valuable lives but also to the extinction of humanity, what is the moral status of such a practice?  Is extinction a moral bad?  Why (or why not)?  Particularly on a contractarian account of social morality, why should I care about human extinction?  What does/doesn't this say about the normative significance of evolutionary stories (such as found in chapter 3 of Gaus, The Order of Public Reason)?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Rationality, Criminals, and the "Score of a Lifetime"

We often see movies in which criminals enter into a conspiracy the outcome of which is the "score of a lifetime."  Think Ocean's Eleven.  At the same time, however, we often see movies where some member of the group double-crosses the rest, usually killing the crew, in order to take home the entire pot of gold rather than his individual share.  Think The Italian Job.  So my question is this:

is it ever rational for criminals to enter into a criminal conspiracy the goal of which is the "score of a lifetime"?

The target -- the score of a lifetime -- seems to suggest a one-off cooperative scheme.  So how can one rationally enter into such an arrangement?  Think prisoners' dilemma situations.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Nothingness and fear of death

This is an interesting column: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-peron/atheism-death_b_957049.html

This captures much of some of my currently-held beliefs regarding what is most likely:

"How did 1950 feel to you?" she asked him. Tony was confused. That was long before he was born. Stella knew this. Why ask such a question? But before he could respond, Stella answered the question herself.

"You didn't exist in 1950 and at some point in the future you will once again cease to exist. That's really it, you know. One day you came into being, and you sucked at life itself, grabbing everything you could. You learned, you lived, if lucky, you loved. And one day it simply ceases to be. What is there to fear? Did the time before your birth traumatize you or cause you pain? No. You weren't there to be traumatized or to feel pain. And someday you, and I as well, will simply stop being. It will be as it was for that eternity before our births. The world, for us, came into existence the day we were born and it will cease the day we die. There is an eternity after our death, and an eternity before our birth. Our life is like a slim, but wonderful book sitting between two vast bookends of nothingness. Why worry about the nothingness when we have such a wonderful volume in our hands right now?"

As I mentioned above, this captures much of my currently held beliefs about what is likely to come.  I differ, however, in the author’s outlook.  The idea of nothingness is extremely depressing, almost crushingly so, to me anyway.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rationality and individual belief

Lately I’ve been thinking about rationality and individual belief.  Here is my question: how does one rationally choose what to believe in fields that require technical expertise when (1) the individual does not possess such expertise, (2) there is disagreement among experts, and (3) the disagreement is deep and fundamental, usually the result of different comprehensive worldviews?  I have in mind important questions regarding economics, science, social theory, etc.  Most of us do not possess advanced degrees and lack the formal training required to make a truly informed decision on many important matters.  Yet most of us nevertheless believe some theory rather than another, and believe strongly in it, often evincing frustration (and even anger) towards those with opposite beliefs.  So how is it that we come to have these beliefs?  Can these beliefs be the result of a rational process?  How is that process rational?  We usually do not take it to be rational to believe something simply because a majority believes it (leaving aside the Condorcet Jury Theorom), so counting heads seems to be out.  What should we do?