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Archive for January 2017

Not My President

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This week, Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis gave an interview where he stated he does not sees Donald Trump is a “legitimate president.” Lewis gave as his reasons the alleged Russian hacking during the campaign, saying this “helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.” Lewis went on to claim a “conspiracy on the part of the Russians and others” to tamper with the election, but did not identify who the others were.

To the surprise of no one, Trump responded with a series of two tweets criticizing Lewis. These tweets themselves became subjects of further reporting and kept the story hot. Over the past week I have read an entire spectrum of opinions over what Lewis said and how Trump responded. Here are my conclusions.

Political Legitimacy

John Lewis absolutely does have the moral right to reject the political legitimacy of Donald Trump. He has this right not because he is a congressman or a civil rights legend, but because he is a citizen. As long as we believe it to be true that the power of the government derives from the consent of the governed, the governed have the moral right to withhold that consent. The citizen can refuse to consent to specific actions or to the presence of specific office holders.

However, if rejection of political legitimacy is serious — if it is more than just a posture for effect — then it is an extreme position. Like going to war, a person who rejects the political legitimacy of an elected official must have strong reasons and, if he goes public with his rejection, he is obligated to articulate those reasons. If you are going to influence others to accept your position, there are going to be consequences for you and consequences for them.

Not liking the outcome of an election is not a valid reason to withhold legitimacy from the winner. It is a repudiation of the election process. Yes, the parade of claims that Barack Obama was not a citizen by birth was a lame attempt to do exactly this: to withhold legitimacy because people did not like the result of an election.

Yes, there is a lot to dislike about Donald Trump. If you want to say that he’s not your president, you have that right. But “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires” that you should have good reasons, reasons that are centered on actions.

If you want to refuse him legitimacy because he has never conveyed a set of principles other than his own self-enlargement that he really stands for, I can see your way to that. But I can’t go with simply not being willing to accept that your candidate lost. Back in the spring, my candidate lost and I got over it.

Instead of blaming the Russians, FBI Director James Comey and whoever else is handy, the Democrats would be best served by examining why their program and their candidate did not go over. Yes, I am sure it is painful trying to comprehend losing an election to this man. The truth hurts.

Is the System Rigged?

You could claim that Donald Trump invited this back in the general election campaign, when he claimed that the election would be rigged if he lost.

Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naïve!
— Donald Trump tweet during October 2016, reported by Business Insider.

So now let his intemperate words come back to bite him. Why shouldn’t his opponents also claim the system is rigged because they didn’t get the result that they want? I mean, other than the fact that he’s Donald Trump and they’re not?

Maybe this is what it is going to take to restore sanity; rash, ill-conceived actions have to have consequences.

The Great (Over)Communicator

Did Trump make a tactical error responding to Lewis and perpetuating the story? Did he make a tactical error attacking Khizr Khan for his speech at the Democratic Convention? Did he make a tactical error for his statements about Mexican immigrants in June 2015? The talking heads pontificate out how counterproductive his behavior is. I have yet to see actual negative consequences. Instead, he played the media like a calliope and obtained free publicity.

Donald Trump has successfully flouted decades of political wisdom.

Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.
— Mark Twain

Politics is human beings; it’s addition rather than subtraction.
— Donald Rumsfeld

Using the orthodox wisdom, I thought Trump would flame out early in the primary season. I was wrong. I am not interested in continuing to repeat the same mistakes.

What is there to learn from this experience? The first thing to learn is the fact that nobody knows how long these tactics are going to work. Nobody knows whether this is a seasonal change or a fundamental change. The talking heads on television say that you can’t govern this way. But they also said you can’t win a campaign this way, and that assertion did not hold up.

Written by srojak

January 15, 2017 at 12:08 pm

Freedom from Choice

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Moral autonomy has been a central feature of Western thought since the Enlightenment. In the history of philosophy, the concept is usually considered to have been developed by Kant and further refined by Mill. Given the deep pluralism of belief begun with the Reformation and the Enlightenment emphasis on rational inquiry, I believe the development of a morally autonomous individual was a logical outcome.

Where personal autonomy is the ability to choose one’s own actions, whether moral or not, moral autonomy is the ability to conduct one’s own inquiry into moral behavior and determine for oneself the morally correct course of action. Individualism would not be possible without moral autonomy. Separate from these is political autonomy, which, since it concerns politics, applies to groups: a group having political autonomy can set its own political course.

Moral autonomy requires some discussion of the selfhood of the person involved. A key question is: Does an authentic self really exist apart from the society in which the person lives? A person who answers in the negative will likely emphasize belonging and relationships above individuality and autonomy. At the extreme end of this view, moral autonomy would not even make any sense.

Moral autonomy is also impracticable, if not unthinkable, in a clan-based society like Afghanistan. The individual who attempted to assert his autonomy would put himself outside the protection of his clan. He would be a target for other clans and anyone who wanted someone to pick on. His life would necessarily be solitary, mean, nasty, brutish and short.

Although Western thought has been very far-reaching, it is not universal. It has critics both inside and outside of Western nations. Furthermore, we now have a large number of people in the West who are unaware of the advantages that Western thought has conferred upon them and are not prepared to defend it.

Beyond this, there are seasonal tides that cause moral autonomy to be viewed differently through the decades. The 1930s, for example, were very collectivist years in history, and autonomy was under attack almost everywhere. Since 1960, moral autonomy has made an uneven comeback in the West, galloping forward in some areas while advancing fitfully and tentatively in others. Being aware of the history, one cannot simply extrapolate the continued advancement of moral autonomy without reversal into the future.

MacIntyre’s Objections

Irving Babbitt quoted a joke from the 1920s asserting that everyone would ultimately have to become either a Marxist or a Roman Catholic. Alasdair MacIntyre has done both, starting as a Marxist but later converting to Roman Catholicism and ultimately taking up a Thomist approach. MacIntyre is considered a very important communitarian thinker.

His first important major work was After Virtue (1981), wherein he asserted that the liberal Enlightenment project had failed and had done so necessarily, not accidentally. While After Virtue was primarily a criticism of where the Enlightenment had gone wrong, he provides hints of what he would substitute for it. Later writings, particularly Dependent Rational Animals (1999), advanced MacIntyre’s positive communitarian program.

Justice and Moral Anarchy

.. modern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus. And it is not. Modem politics is civil war carried on by other means …
After Virtue, p. 253.

MacIntyre sees modern liberal individualism having descended into emotivism, where there is no ground to reach agreement among partisans having competing moral claims. Although we engage in rational argument to persuade others of the correctness of our viewpoint, there is no shared moral basis to which we can appeal in order to serve as a foundation, offering mutually agreed-upon premises for persuasive argument.

Although the moral claims are advanced by persons, the partisans claim that their arguments are impersonal and even universal.

Yet if we possess no unassailable criteria, no set of compelling reasons by means of which we may convince our opponents, it follows that in the process of making up our own minds we can have made no appeal to such criteria or such reasons. If I lack any good reasons to invoke against you, it must seem that I lack any good reasons. Hence it seems that underlying my own position there must be some non-rational decision to adopt that position. Corresponding to the interminability of public argument there is at least the appearance of a disquieting private arbitrariness. It is small wonder if we become defensive and therefore shrill.
After Virtue, p. 8.

In a community of people attempting to reach political decisions in this way, they cannot do so on a moral basis, because they cannot achieve agreement upon premises. Therefore, resolution of disputes must in the end be a matter of which side has the stronger will and is prepared to use the least restraint in order that their will should prevail upon others not so minded.

An honest assessment of the events of the past year, at the very least, leads me to believe that the above is an accurate rendering of what we have come to.

The Telos

MacIntyre has a very direct writing style. Chapter 5 of After Virtue is titled, “Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail.” At root, he claims it had to fail because it disputed the idea of an ordained human purpose, a telos. A telos exists outside of human choice. It imposes ethical obligations on all persons, “just because you live here.” You don’t get to choose whether or not to morally accept it. You can always refuse to honor its demands, but you will be morally less of a person because of your refusal, and good people will shun you.

The assertion of a human telos is a direct attack on moral autonomy. Or, if you prefer, it is equally true the other way around: the assertion of moral autonomy is a direct attack on a human telos. The latter is the more historically correct, because that is one of the consequences of the Enlightenment. It logically follows from the Reformation: once there was no longer one monolithic authority — namely, the Roman Catholic Church — to interpret the telos, who was going to be in charge of the interpretation?

Dissent in Communitarian Societies

How does a communitarian society, which rejects individual autonomy, turn back when it starts to go wrong? The events of the twentieth century have demonstrated that organizations at all levels and scales, from clans to religious movements to commercial enterprises to political entities, are fully capable of going astray. To avoid this issue is to engage in philosophical negligence; it is simply bad risk management. There must be a framework for individuals to dissent from the decisions of the community on moral grounds and seek to have these decisions reconsidered.

The show trials in the Soviet Union in the 1930s were considered remarkable because the defendants willingly acknowledged their own guilt. Why did they do that? Why did they not defend themselves? Solzhenitsyn wrote that they had gone to a moral place from which they could not defend themselves.

And what did Bukharin fear most in those months before his arrest? It is reliably known that above all he feared expulsion from the Party! Being deprived of the Party! Being left alive but outside the Party! And Dear Koba [Stalin] had played magnificently on this trait of his (as he had with them all) from the very moment he had himself become the Party. Bukharin (like all the rest of them) did not have his own individual point of view. They didn’t have their own genuine ideology of opposition, on the strength of which they could step aside and on which they could take their stand. Before they became an opposition, Stalin declared them to be one, and by this move he rendered them powerless. And all their efforts were directed toward staying in the Party. And toward not harming the Party at the same time!
These added up to too many different obligations for them to be independent.
The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, p. 414; italics in original.

Without moral autonomy, it was not possible for any of the accused Communists to have an individual point of view, at least not in ethical terms. Without moral autonomy, who were they to oppose the community, even when the community demanded that they sacrifice themselves to it?

This behavior was not confined to communists. I have previously cited the example of Hindenburg. Once the German citizens really accepted “the conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing,” they did not have a moral leg to stand on when that community chose racist and exploitive collectivists to lead them.

Virtues and Autonomy

The assertion of virtues with a prior moral claim upon all persons can only be squared with moral autonomy if all persons would somehow converge on the acceptance of these virtues. This was part of the great Enlightenment project. Kant hoped to resolve this with the categorical imperative, which American progressive education simplified to, “What if everybody thought that way?” He hoped that all moral and thinking persons, no matter their starting point, would be able to use this to reason their way to a common moral understanding. Kant both underestimated the potential scope of deep moral pluralism and failed to reckon with the ability of people to rationalize.

The discovery of a telos, a higher human purpose, which all persons could assent without compromising moral autonomy would be a worthwhile project, and I wish success to anyone who undertakes it. However, after all these years of life, study and experience, I doubt that it can be achieved. Where does this leave us?

I hear and acknowledge MacIntyre’s criticisms of Enlightenment inquiry and moral autonomy, but I am deeply skeptical of his program to address them. Individual moral autonomy is a supreme achievement of Western civilization. It is our front-line defense against mass movements that would lead us lemming-like to our destruction.

Supplementary Links

This discussion only scratches the surface of issues involving moral responsibility and political consequences thereof. For the reader having a deeper interest in the subjects discussed, here are some leads. One should bear in mind that any of these will be written by a person with a point of view.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Written by srojak

January 1, 2017 at 12:42 pm