Morality and Politics

One of the most frustrating parts about modern politics (and perhaps politics throughout history) is that it seems to me that behind the scenes, we are still duking it out over some of the oldest moral debates: is something moral because of its results (what we attribute to it), or is something moral in and of itself? In other words, do we construct moral principles or are moral principles discoverable objects of the universe?

It’s very easy to see this in political discourse. There are some certain groups of people who act purely egoistically, seeking their own personal gain and satisfaction purely, even at the expense of vast numbers of people. Think Charles and David Koch, Wall Street bankers, and a significant number of our politicians (if not all of them). There are other certain groups of people who discuss high-minded idealisms, seeking some sort of end goal in society through their political action. Think Occupy (yeah, I know), the Tea Party (yeah, I know), and all sorts of people across the spectrum who are involved in politics to effect some sort of change change in the system. I want to differentiate these two groups from the outset. The first group is purely selfish: the only change they ever seek is change which improves their own personal lot in life. They are nihilistic in the worst way. The other group, regardless of how you feel about their individual beliefs, is revolutionary. Rather than seeking to benefit only themselves, they seek to reach some end goal that they believe is morally better. It is, at least potentially, an altruistic goal.

I want to set aside the egoists for now. As far as I’m concerned, they should have no say in the political system, because we cannot trust their actions or their words. That’s a discussion for another time, though. Let’s focus on the altruists, who I believe are the majority (numerically speaking; by definition the egoists have more money). Within this group, I believe we find the moral debate I referenced in the first paragraph. You have the top-down ethicists (deontologists) who want to enact change based on a set of principles, regardless of their consequences. On the other hand, you have the bottom-up ethicists (consequentialists) who want to enact change based on results. There have been studies that compare people that have found evidence supporting the idea that we might be naturally deontologists or consquentialists, but that’s another discussion for another time. Moreover, I think studies like that might only lend some small amount of wisdom.

I will try to cut through a lot of the less important information and get to something resembling a point. What I conclude from this observation is that even if we adjust for the fact that moneyed interests (egoists) have influenced our political debate in their favor, it seems to me that change is very difficult to enact. This is because agreement is hard to come by. Those of us who argue for results-based policy have a hard time arguing against those who believe in principled policy, simply because a lot of the time we might want results that conflict with those principles. I do think that there is a way out, though. We need to agree on a new set of principles. Behind the scenes, I think that deontologists and consequentialists are secretly envious of the other side. Sometimes we engage in the other’s tactics in order to get our larger point across. In other words, we’re not as intellectually consistent as we pretend to be. Because of this, I think there’s an opening.

What principles should we agree upon? That’s a matter of debate, but I think there’s one that we must all agree upon. I think it’s non-negotiable. I think that without this principle, we are doomed to continually repeat the cycle of oppression and revolution that has existed throughout history. We must value human life above all else. I don’t mean human life in the categorical sense. I mean each individual human life. We must seek the maximization of every individual person. From this, I believe we get certain resultant principles: people shouldn’t harm one another, people shouldn’t seek personal gain at another’s expense, people should treat each other as equals, etc. I think this satisfies both the deontologists and the consequentialists, and if we argue from these principles (and we argue honestly!), we can reach some conclusions upon which we all agree.

It’s lofty. It’s kind of ridiculous, and it will likely not happen. I think it is at least possible, though, and that hope is worth my time and effort. I want to develop these ideas quite a bit further, but I think they should be considered.

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Morality and Politics

Why I Can’t Trust the State

I’m taking a quick break from coding to write briefly about some thoughts I have had buzzing throughout my mind the last several days. I have made it at least implicitly clear in my writing and in my tweets that I believe there is good evidence to think that a significant portion of human thought is based on connotation and that without an equally significant effort in analysis, that connotation will rule our thoughts. I am quite certain that we cannot escape that. (Or, at least, I usually can’t.) I may write more on that specific idea at another time, but please keep it in mind as you read on.

I frequently relabel my different beliefs because they are rather fluid. I am always changing my political beliefs, specifically, because humans and the societies they create are so vastly complex. I find it an egregious error of pride for someone to claim that they have all the answers in politics (e.g. politicians). I am moderately certain that I have been following some sort of an illustratable trajectory, though, so I will try to explain that pithily. From my upbringing onward, I have made pit-stops in neoconservatism, neoliberalism, modern liberalism (of the FDR variety), and lately I have been reanalyzing my ideas. As I learn more about the institutions of society, I become increasingly aware of how language is used and how connotation is used against people. Those with knowledge (who are generally identical to those with power and money) are able to sway the public mind with mostly-truths (denotatively) that have totally different meanings to the rest of us. The fact that this is even a possibility is troubling, and it is therefore incumbent upon those of us without knowledge to be highly skeptical of what a person with knowledge in power (i.e. someone who has something to gain from manipulation of the truth) might say.

As an example, consider the advertising industry. An advertiser is either part of a company or is hired by a company that has a product or service to sell. In order to sell the product, the advertiser should appeal to the potential buyer somehow. They are in a position of knowledge, and therefore power, because they know the details of the product or service (both positive and negative). We are therefore hesitant to trust advertisers. We read reviews from people who have nothing to gain from our purchase of that product. We want independent verification. We are naturally and understandably skeptical, as we should be.

With these thoughts in mind, I firmly believe that we, humans existing in a society, should be highly skeptical of the words spoken and written by those in the upper echelons of our societies. When you examine the backgrounds of the people in power, you find a vast number of qualities in common among those people. Let me give you some adjectives: lawyer, millionaire, Ivy League, the list goes on. The specifics, while troubling, are not the point. The point is that our State is only barely indistinguishable from something rather oligarchical or plutocratic. (I wouldn’t say aristocratic – the cool kids club here isn’t only open to those born to wealth.) As a body primarily consisting of lawyers (skills in language), as a body primarily consisting of people with similar backgrounds (therefore, often similar goals), I believe we have good reason to be extremely skeptical of the State (specifically the United States “federal” government).

I do not believe I need to explain why we ought to be skeptical of those who are moneyed. People who are vastly wealthy often became that way by some form of exploitation. (Does the CEO of a company really do hundreds of times more work than the other people in the company? I don’t think so.)

The conclusion I think that is fair to draw from these thoughts is that authority is something about which we should be explicitly skeptical. If we can endeavor to reduce subservience to authority and instead pursue what I think is fair to call real freedom, I think our societies can truly become something quite enviable. Encouragingly, I think a lot of the tech industry is based on some of this sort of thought. As an example, Mark Zuckerberg may have made out with a lot of wealth, but his employees get significant restricted shares in Facebook as part of employment. In that way, Facebook, to a tiny degree, becomes partially their own, and they become less subservient. A more interesting case would be Mondragon.

To summarize, then, be skeptical of those in power. Remember that power corrupts, and that it corrupts absolutely. Remember that if we are all truly created equal, then we have equal freedom. With equal freedom, I think that happiness and the power of innovation can soar to heights unknown to previous civilizations.

Why I Can’t Trust the State

Fixing our Definition of Freedom

It has seemed fashionable in America for quite some time to point to freedom as our guiding principle and liberty as a be-all-end-all for what we should seek to achieve. I think this is truly a good thing. I consider myself to be a libertarian in this sense, and I think that the United States has a history that is immersed in this principle of attempting to maximize potential freedom for its entire people (while, admittedly, exterminating, enslaving, and indenturing various “other” peoples). I want to highlight the fact that freedom is a vague word, and the Ayn Rand “conservatives” of today have hijacked the term for their own usage.

I find it instructive to at least briefly go over political history and the classical meanings of words. “Liberal,” in the classic sense, is a word that actually describes more accurately the beliefs of the modern day Ayn Rand conservative. I specify the Ayn Rand variety because I think there is a huge gap between them and a group which I think melds much better: moderates and neoconservatives. This Ayn Rand variety of classical liberalism typically adheres to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and champions the cause of freedom most loudly. The freedom they speak of, though, is very anti-intellectual. I would argue, in fact, that it is a form of doublespeak which is truly very anti-freedom as well.

Meditate on that word for a moment. Freedom. What do we mean when we say that word? I personally like to envision broad horizons, the removal of chains, the open spirit, and a requirement of discipline for success. While a classical liberal (which I now use as synonymous for “Ayn Rand conservative”) might agree with this picture on a shallow level, but I would argue that they directly oppose that view. Freedom to the classical liberal is much more narrow and, if I may be so bold, is an immoral view directly opposed to the true meaning of the concept of freedom. Freedom, to the classical liberal, is very specifically the removal of power from those who do not have money (money is viewed as the equivalent of success, intelligence, and deserved power) to those who do have money. Therefore, governmental institutions are illegitimate in most of their pursuits, because they must take money from those who should rightfully have power. In other words, the “invisible hand” of the free market should guide the economy and government of a society, because those with more money are taken to be more deserving of power and more likely to use it properly.

I hope that explanation is explained well enough, as I could easily write a book on this subject. I find it extremely interesting. To make it simple, I will say that classical liberals believe that short-term, or absolute, freedom is the best application of the concept of freedom. My freedom to do as I please with what I own is more important than my ability to exercise that freedom at any point in time. A proper libertarian view is, I think, much more sophisticated and a more moral view of how to run a society. It is also easier to explain. Quite simply, the libertarian view is that of consequentialist freedom, rather than the absolute freedom, should be the benchmark for laws and societal norms.

Let me briefly explain what I mean by consequentialist freedom. As many of us understand, consequentialism is the popular moral philosophy stating that an action should be judged as moral, amoral, or immoral based on its consequences rather than an absolute standard. This system allows for me to decide that despite the law and moral norm that I should not kill a person, I may kill an intruder who is threatening my family in order to save my life and theirs. Absolutist morality would forbid all killing regardless of the circumstances or the consequences. Similarly, consequentialist freedom would take into account the practical implications of a law or policy rather than its strict rhetorical meaning. In other words, does a law, as far as best estimates show, improve a given person’s freedom to do as she wishes with her life? Does this law negatively impact another person’s ability to do as he wishes with his life? Does a poor person gain more freedom than a rich person loses with a given poverty program? Does this policy increase the level of “springboard equality”? (I use “springboard equality” as a term to describe the fact that some people, by definition, are less likely to become successful simply because their “springboard” was lower on the success scale due to poverty or other circumstances.)

Let me summarize. The modern day classical liberal (think Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and the folks who agree with them) believes that absolutist freedom is more valid than consequentialist freedom. They believe that freedom should be judged in a theoretical sense (if I had money, I could accomplish a wider number of tasks). Consequentialist freedom, the view of many progressives and more traditional libertarians, is the tradition of viewing freedom as a practical measure. My freedom to accomplish a task should be defined by whether or not I can actually accomplish that task in reality, not whether I could if I had money. Consequentialist freedom, therefore, is the most moral, most intellectual, and best benchmark for how we should proceed forward as a society. The debate ought to be how to accomplish that, and it is a valid debate to have. We cannot progress as a people if we continue to allow the debate to be over selfish, backwards absolutism over a more thoughtful, reasonable, and moral approach to improving our world.

Fixing our Definition of Freedom