Saturday, October 26, 2013

Meanness: Philosophical reflections

Meanness: Topic No. 92 that philosophers and ethicists never seem to talk about.
Meanness seems to me to be a pretty common occurrence. It forms part of the social backdrop in which we all live, play and work. Most of us, I think, can think of discrete examples of mean behaviour we have witnessed in the not-too-distant past, and many of us would know someone we think of as mean.

Yet meanness has not been subject to much philosophical attention. Out of curiosity, I recently searched a few academic and philosophy databases for works on meanness. Even in the context of psychology there was surprisingly little—and most of it about school-age children. In terms of philosophical or ethical analysis, there was almost nothing. This seems to me to be startling—surely meanness, as much as selfishness, is one of the key drivers of human misery in the modern world. Perhaps it is more visible when performed to and by schoolchildren, but it is hardly an exclusive concern of that age-group.

Defining meanness
What do I mean by meanness? Meanness is not simply selfishness or callousness. The callous person is amoral: they are someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to secure their desired ends: power, money, influence and so on. But the harm the callous person inflicts is not performed for its own sake, as an end in itself. It is done only instrumentally, as a means to some other, distinct value. The mean person, however, performs the harm for its own sake, and not for any further good. He wants to inflict harm, to drag another person down, to wreck her self-belief and undermine her self-esteem. Meanness, then, is low-grade cruelty. Meanness is cruelty for people without a work ethic.

Meanness, so defined, is everywhere. I submit that it motivates harassment in the workplace, bullying online, vitriol in the twittersphere, spousal abuse in relationships, point-scoring in conversations, road rage and verbal attacks on random strangers in public places. To be sure, all these actions can happen for motivations distinct from meanness. But very often, I think, they are a result of a naked will to harm for its own sake.

Why are people mean? Meanness as will to power
Why are people mean? This seems to me a much more perplexing question than the more general one of, ‘why are people selfish?’ People are selfish because they don’t accept any moral constraints on getting what they want (or maybe they think they have valid reasons to resist applying morality in this instance). Selfish people simply see what they want and they go for it. But this is not meanness. Meanness is not amoral but immoral. Meanness involves enjoying inflicting harm for its own sake—not merely as an instrument to some further, independent wish. As such, it is not only different to selfishness, but can often conflict with the narrow pursuit of one’s other desires. Mean people often undermine their own self-interest when they are mean. Instead of facilitating relationships that might prove massively beneficial for their future, mean people go around unnecessarily making enemies. Soundlessly, invisibly, mean people are cut off from future job opportunities, helpful associations, fun events, positions of authority, wonderful friendships and rewarding relationships, and all because they couldn’t resist the temptation to knock someone down a peg.

But this very fact makes meanness perplexing. If it isn’t performed on the basis of self-interested prudence, then, why are so many of us mean, at least on the odd occasion? To be honest I’m not really sure of the answer here—but here’s one thought. Perhaps meanness is an expression of what Nietzsche called the will to power—the wish to feel and know that one is powerful.  Meanness gives the mean person the thrill of mattering in the world, of being an object of others’ attentions, of having an impact on what others are doing and feeling. It is an action one can perform where one can see the immediate effect one has on the world. A mean action makes a difference, it is a way the world is changed by one’s actions, it is an achievement (albeit one easy to accomplish). If that is right, meanness is a strategy against insignificance; it is a prop for an ego that needs to see its will impact upon the world.

Perhaps we can go further, and speculate on a deeper socio-biological link between meanness and the feeling of power. It is not hard to imagine that, once upon a time, meanness was an accurate indicator of physical, social and political power. Living in smaller communities, if you inflict abuse on another person, someone who is actually physically present and who knows who you are, you demonstrate that they do not have the power to stop you. You show that the victim does not have the power or courage to hit back—to requite, as Nietzsche would put it. Only the powerful and the brave (or, at least, those heedless of the risks of physical or social battle) can be gratuitously mean. If the weak person attempts meanness, he will suffer retribution; he will be put back in his place, through social or physical means. Succeeding in a mean action demonstrates that others do not have that power over you. It impresses this sense of power upon the mean person himself, upon the victim who is forced to endure the ill-treatment, and upon third-parties who can be impressed by the power and confidence of the mean person. In small, tight-knit communities where physical proximity and non-anonymity were the rule, meanness really was a demonstration of personal and social power. It showed clearly that one resided at the top of the pecking order.

Sometimes, this link between meanness and genuine power is still in effect in the modern world. I have been in situations where a physically strong person (usually a man), clearly unafraid of the situation collapsing into a contest of brute force, gratuitously abuses people or otherwise picks fights with them. It is an ugly and in many respects scornful show of strength—but it is a show of strength nonetheless.

But in the modern world, everyone can now get away with being mean. You can abuse or harass people online, with various levels of anonymity, and walk away unscathed. In such situations it is possible to feel the thrill of the genuinely strong person, without actually possessing their power. The anonymity of the internet or the city street lets any one of us feel what it is like to push someone’s buttons knowing they have no capacity to retaliate. It provides us with a feeling of power that was hitherto only possible for the tribal chief, the feudal lord, the aristocratic princess. It lets us pretend for a moment that we are at the top of the pecking order, carelessly exacting our will on those beneath us as we please. Just because we can.

Racism and sexism as organized meanness
If we take meanness seriously as a real and abiding fact of human behaviour, then it might change the way we think about other vices.

So here’s a contentious thought: maybe we don’t—as a world, as a country, as a culture—have a problem with racism and sexism. Maybe at base we really have a problem with meanness.

Sometimes social commentators seem to speak as if racists are otherwise decent, reasonable folk who—if only they could only be disabused of their irrational notions about racial difference—would thereafter be good and worthy citizens. On this view, the problem is fundamentally one about their views and values on race in particular, and not a more general one about their moral psychology.

I accept that there are probably some people who are like this—it’s not hard to imagine an otherwise good-hearted person who grew up in a culture where every child is taught that racial differences are morally relevant, or who lives in a world where all the people with a particular skin colour are poor and uneducated, and who mistakenly concludes that racial difference correlates with differences of character or rationality. But in my own world of twenty-first century Australia, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever actually met anyone like that. Pretty much every person I’ve ever met who espoused genuinely racist or sexist views was not otherwise a nice person. Their character flaws were by no means limited to their particular views on discrete classes of people. They were mean in a much more unqualified and generic sense.  

This point needs to be distinguished from a person being insensitive to racial or sexual issues. Certainly someone can be a decent person who, through lack of awareness about current society or prior history, or entrenched and institutional structures that permeate inequalities, acts without a proper degree of sensitivity to minorities. Education can fix a decent person who is culturally insensitive—they just need to learn that their behaviour hurts others and to understand why it does so. But such a course of consciousness-raising cannot cure meanness. The mean person wants to hurt others. Showing them the effects of their actions just underscores that they are succeeding.

Now I’m not implying that all instances of racism and sexism are just simple products of meanness—as if mean people just use bigoted attitudes when they interact with others who they can target racially or on the basis of gender or sexuality, and then switch to different types of abuse when they encounter others. This view would assert that bigotry is just window-dressing to the actual motivation, which is just to be mean generically, to anyone who they can get away with it.

Instead, I suspect it is in the nature of meanness to organize itself. Mean people want to be effective in their meanness, and being effective requires being organized. If I really want to hurt someone, to impact upon her wellbeing, then what I want to do is to oppress her. Anonymous random abuse is all very well for the mean person, but such occurrences are all too easy for victims to ignore, or even laugh away. And that ruins the fun. The type of abuse that is impossible to ignore is the abuse that is well-organized and pervasive. If a mean person wakes up in the morning and wants to oppress a tall, healthy, well-educated white male in my culture, I submit it is almost impossible for them to do so. This is because oppression requires coordination; it requires the victim to be aware that wherever they turn, they will encounter this same harassment and abuse. You can use pointless cruelty to ruin the day of this white male, but that won’t contribute to ruining his life unless you (the mean person) can rely on other mean people ruining his tomorrows as well. For this reason, salient, visible features are crucial—in an anonymous world the mean person will want to target specific features like gender, ethnicity and visible religiousness (even shortness or slowness) in the expectation that his other comrades-in-meanness can do the same in future, and have done the same in the past.

Now in a non-anonymous community, the mean person can pick and communicate his victims more deliberately. The bullying gang therefore picks a particular target and works on them, rather than dissipating their cruelty randomly and ineffectively. But in an anonymous context, if a mean person wants to coordinate their efforts with other mean people they don’t actually know personally, then salient feature like race, sex, ethnicity or visible religion are helpful markers to direct their abuse.

If this is right, then it means that a lot of what looks like racism or sexism may not be actually based upon a belief that the category of victimized people is inferior, or a genuine value-commitment that they are hated. Rather, there is simply a free-floating meanness—a will to feel the power of abusing, harming and oppressing others (any others)—that converges on salient targets.

Even if this was the full story on racism and sexism (which it isn't), it wouldn’t mean that as a society it isn’t worth making the effort to rid the world of such bigotries. It is worth getting rid of these behaviours precisely for the reason that the mean person gravitates towards them. If racist and sexist behaviours were socially expunged, then the mean person would be robbed of that ability to organize their attacks that allowed them to get together collectively to oppress.

But an awareness of meanness would imply that dealing with racism and sexism may not be getting towards the moral root of the matter, which is the underlying desire to be mean. Robbed of an ability to organize targets in an anonymous world, the mean person might just direct their attention to other specific targets they know personally. They will vent their will to power on partners, spouses, children and employees.

Where to from here?
If some of what I have been saying here is along the right track, then why don’t we see a more concerted effort to focus on and rid the world of meanness? Why do we focus instead on particular, discrete manifestations on it—racism, sexism, bullying-at-school, trolling online, harassment at work, spousal abuse, vitriol on twitter? Is it because these more specified problems appear more manageable? Or is it because we don’t have the first idea why people are mean, or how to rid them of the vice?

If a person is simply selfish then it seems to me they are (morally speaking) at least manageable. One can speak in a Hobbesian spirit about the many benefits (security, material prosperity, social approval etc) that arise from moral action. Even more, one can show the person a picture of a world where many of their self-centred desires are met, even though that person accepts moral constraints. It is possible for us all to enjoy prosperity, after all. One person’s pursuit of happiness need not undermine the similar pursuits of others, and to accept moral constraints is not to renounce altogether one’s self-interested ambitions. That, in a nutshell, is why human rights have proven so successful as a moral idea.

But we cannot engage in this way with the mean person. They want to undermine the other person’s happiness, not as a means to something else, but for its own sake. There is no possible world where everyone gets their meanness kicks without everyone also being on the receiving end. This is what makes meanness so frustrating for any social reformer or moral philosopher. There seems to be nothing to work with, nothing that we can build out from towards virtue and duty.

So, in the end, I don’t have any simple answers. Maybe if people lived in a world where they could feel their sense of power in the world in lots of other ways (competitive sports, meaningful employment creating genuinely satisfied customers, direct charity work, relationships that cement their feeling of worthwhileness, artistic and creative pursuits, and so on) then they wouldn’t feel a need for the quick thrill of pushing people’s buttons and upsetting them. The guiding idea here is that the will to power is (as Nietzsche thought) an ineradicable feature of the human character. Since we can’t eradicate it, we need to recognise it and sublimate it—to mould it into a shape where it is no longer socially damaging. 

But this is just one speculation. What I do think, though, is that meanness is real and that it is a powerful source of human misery. If we want to improve the lot of humankind, then we need to think seriously about why people are mean, and what can be done to face this problem.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rawls’ Political Liberalism: a common-sense account

John Rawls’ second book, Political Liberalism, deals with a crucial question. Rawls is trying to work out how it is that a liberal democracy can be understood by its citizenry as legitimate, just and stable, given that its citizenry is composed of people who hold irreconcilable fundamental beliefs. As he puts it: “How is it possible for those affirming a fundamental worldview, religious or nonreligious, and in particular doctrines based on religious authority, such as the Church or the Bible, also to hold a reasonable political conception of justice that supports a constitutional democratic society?”

Now it is not only religious faiths that Rawls has in mind here, but also citizens that have irreconcilable philosophical worldviews. The secular philosopher, no less than the devout religious believer, has a belief system about the most basic nature of the world and human existence, and the meaning and substance of ethics. These views differ profoundly amongst themselves, and the history of philosophy suggests there is little prospect for overcoming disagreement on who is right. Given these divergent belief systems—this ‘fact of pluralism’ as Rawls calls it—how is it possible that Christians and Muslims, Kantians and Aristotelians, atheists and spiritualists, can all accept and morally uphold the same system of government and the same set of laws?

Rawls’ solution, the central thesis of political liberalism, is to appeal to an ‘overlapping consensus’. An overlapping consensus occurs when a diverse community of people agree on key principles of justice, even as they disagree on the deeper reasons for those principles, and on more comprehensive details about how lives should morally be lived and what is valuable in human life. An overlapping consensus is a genuine commitment to shared principles. It is not about ‘putting up’ with a system for the time being until things can be changed for the better when one’s faction has more power.  It is not a mere compromise or balance of power—not a ‘modus vivendi’.

I think much of what Rawls says in fact taps in to the way many people in liberal democracies think about the nature of legitimacy, and in what follows I am going to try to give an account of how this works. While I will depart from Rawls a little on a couple of points, the intention is to give a pretty clear and non-technical account of his basic theory.

Why is this a good idea, given that I’m afraid it’s going to make for a pretty long blogpost? (So buckle in, we’re here for a while.) Unfortunately, the importance of Rawls’ book is matched only by its lack of clarity. Even outright enthusiasts for the work acknowledge it is not an easy read, and Rawls himself admitted some of his early formulations of what he was saying were inconsistent and misleading. So the aim here is to give a sensible overview of what I think is a pretty perplexing theory at first reading.

While important, the perplexities in Rawls' work can give rise to all sorts of fevered scribblings...
The core elements
Let’s begin by explaining a few elements of the system, and then we will look at how they all fit together. I have renamed some of Rawls’ terms here, because his terminology can be a bit confusing and longwinded.

First, a ‘fundamental worldview’ is a belief system about the nature of the world, society, human nature and morality. Religions are obvious examples, but so too are philosophies. One can hold to Kant’s philosophical worldview as a fundamental worldview, for example. Fundamental worldviews have three key features. Feature one is that they give an account not only of what general political arrangements are justified, but also about how one should live one’s life. In philosophical terminology, they tell us not only about what is ‘right’ (explaining what rules and laws should we have) but also about what is ‘good’ (explaining what is valuable in human life and relationships). Feature two is that fundamental worldviews answer the most foundational questions of philosophy—they provide an account of what things exist and of their nature and relations: in technical terms, they provide an ‘ontology’. Feature three is that fundamental worldviews are general in nature. Because they announce the key truths about human existence, they aim to apply to everybody universally. If you believe what Kant says we should do, or what Jesus says we should do, then you think that, ideally speaking at least, everyone should do what Kant or Jesus say as well.

Second, a ‘life-plan’ is a person's plan for how they intend their life to go, an account of what is valuable in one’s own life. Each person possesses their own life-plan. Of course one’s life-plan will be influenced by whatever fundamental worldview one holds, but even among adherents of a single religion there will be people pursuing different professions, different relations, different ambitions and different priorities.  Each person crafts their own life-plan, even though they may share a fundamental worldview.

Third, ‘liberal principles’ comprise a set of basic values familiar in liberal democracies. They include, for example, a conception of all people as free and equal, living under the rule of law, and an idea of society as a system of fair cooperation. One paramount principle is of reciprocity—a pervading awareness that unless we are willing for others’ beliefs and truths to rule our lives, then we should not be hoping for our truths to rule their lives. If we are to engage in rule-making with other people, then, we need to try and speak in terms that they can recognize as making sense to them. For example, we can’t appeal to what it says in our Bible to explain why other people should accept a rule. Instead we should appeal to the liberal principles. As well as dictating how we should engage in public debate (namely, by appealing to principles every citizen can be expected to accept) these liberal principles also include some substantive rules about how people are to be treated. For example, the liberal principles will affirm that everyone has a set of basic rights that have a special priority, and that everyone needs some minimum of resources that allows them the type of independence and security necessary to enjoy those basic rights.

These liberal principles are pretty general. They probably rule out a no-holds-barred libertarianism on the political right (because of the requirement of minimum resources to all citizens), and various forms of socialism on the left (because of the prioritization of citizen's individual rights). Otherwise, though, the liberal principles can accord with a family of more specific liberal philosophies. We’ll turn to these specific political ‘liberal philosophies’ in a moment, but for now it is worth noting that the liberal political principles can give us an outline of a basic constitutional structure. If we all agree on the general liberal principles, then we should be able to work out what broad political structure we should have. For example, the liberal principles might lay down a bill of rights, a separation of powers to ensure the rule of law, and rules about the nature and makeup of legislative bodies that will determine the finer-grained laws we are all to live by.

Justice-as-fairness: now just one of a family
of reasonable liberal philosophies.
The fourth element is made up of the specific ‘liberal philosophies’ I mentioned in the last paragraph. For our purposes here a ‘liberal philosophy’ is a specific, coherent and systematic account of a political regime that conforms to the more general liberal principles, for instance of understanding all citizens as free and equal. Such a liberal philosophy is quite detailed—we are able to use our specific liberal philosophy to determine the exact boundaries of each of the rights, what sort of equality of opportunity people deserve, and what resources people are entitled to. Rawls’ first work, A Theory of Justice, was framed by him as a fundamental worldview that put forward a correct account of justice, namely ‘justice-as-fairness’. In his later work, though, he has changed the status of this account. Now justice-as-fairness is no longer understood as a fundamental worldview developing universal principles of justice. Rather, Rawls reconceives justice-as-fairness as just one of a family of liberal philosophies that align with the general liberal principles. (Rawls thinks that justice-as-fairness represents‘the most reasonable’ of the liberal philosophies, but nothing in his overall picture depends on us accepting this. I don't.)

In other words, Rawls’ justice-as-fairness presents one example of a liberal philosophy that will supply particular answers to our major policy questions—but it is not the only such example. Other interpretations of the liberal principles are possible, precisely because these principles are general. For instance, left-libertarianism, Lockean liberalism and perhaps some brands of utilitarian liberalism are all liberal philosophies that accord with the liberal principles as I described them above. I will use these three specific liberal philosophies, along with justice-as-fairness, as my examples of liberal philosophies, but don’t worry if you don’t really know exactly what these are. All that matters is that that they are specific and systematic accounts that share the larger idea that all citizens are free and equal, but interpret that idea in slightly different ways. You can think of the liberal philosophies as something like a more coherent version of the political positions of all the mainstream political parties in western democracies (conservative, liberal, labour, republican, democrat, green etc).

The liberal philosophies share much in common, but they differ in their specific policies; adherents of each will disagree on key questions regarding the boundaries of different rights, the legal duties we owe to each other and the requirements of distributive justice (such as the merits of welfarist taxation). While each liberal philosophy agrees that all citizens are free and equal persons joined in society for fair cooperation, they will understand each of those terms differently, and so will argue, and vote, for different sorts of policies as they engage in public debates and enact legislation. 

Importantly, the liberal philosophy is not the same as a fundamental worldview. The liberal philosophy is a systematic and coherent account of rights, duties and legal processes. However, it makes no specific claims about the fundamental worldviews that might lie beneath that account. It is a political philosophy that avoids all the controversies of ‘first philosophy’—that is, it is agnostic about deeper questions of metaphysics, epistemology, axiology and suchlike. Also, the liberal philosophy does not aim to fill out every detail of a person’s moral life. It says what a person’s legal rights and duties are, but assets nothing about how citizens should use those rights in order to live a ‘proper’ or ‘perfect’ life. In just those two ways the liberal philosophy differs from the fundamental worldview.

I think this distinction between liberal philosophies and fundamental worldviews makes sense when we think about the history of political philosophy in general. For example, very diverse people can and do find many of the arguments, and the broader political philosophy, of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government to be compelling. But that doesn’t mean they commit to the natural law and Christian underpinnings of that work. Locke’s liberal philosophy is ‘modular’, as it might be put. It is a systematic and coherent account of rights and duties, and reasons for them, that can be embraced by people holding very different fundamental worldviews—including even people like me, who are quite agnostic about religion and religion’s relationship to ethics.

How do these four elements fit together in Rawls’ system?
We can think of three of these elements as different types of overlapping consensuses—that is, beliefs and values that are shared despite deeper or more personal differences of belief and value.

To explain, let’s begin with a single person, Amy. Amy has her own life-plan—her own ideas on how her life will go and her picture of what is valuable in her life. This life-plan is not shared by anyone else; it is Amy’s plan about how Amy’s life should go. But Amy also has a fundamental worldview, a set of deep philosophical, moral or religious views that she holds as true. Let’s suppose for argument’s sake that Amy is a Christian. (I use Christianity just because I am more familiar with it than with other religions, and so hopefully less likely to make a blunder about its beliefs. But most other religions should be able to slot into everything I say here.)

So Amy is a Christian, and let’s say she shares this belief system with others in her society, including Betty and Cathy. Let’s suppose also that their Christian worldview is what Rawls’ calls a ‘reasonable’ fundamental worldview. This means that it is consistent with the liberal principles—it envisages all citizens as free and equal. (Why might we expect fundamental worldviews to be reasonable? We’ll consider that important question below.) Amy, Betty and Cathy therefore all agree on the liberal principles. Because they agree on these, they can also agree on a liberal basic structure for society—a constitutional setup. But this doesn’t mean they agree politically on everything. In fact, Amy and Betty think that the best liberal philosophy, and the one that best fits with their Christianity, is (let’s suppose) a pretty egalitarian one, such as justice-as-fairness. For that reason they tend to vote towards the political left (democrat, labour, etc). Cathy disagrees, however. When she reflects on the nature of freedom and equality, she selects a political system where each person has a guaranteed minimum of resources from which to begin, but then is allowed to keep whatever she can make of those resources. Cathy therefore opts for left-libertarianism as her liberal philosophy; she directs her votes towards more right-wing and conservative parties. While Cathy agrees with Amy and Betty about what the general constitutional structure of the society should be, and with their fundamental worldview of the Christian faith, she disagrees with them on matters of taxation and equal opportunity. From her left-libertarian standpoint, she argues with Amy and Betty in public forums, and she votes against their more egalitarian legislative proposals.

Now consider David and Ernie. David is a Kantian—he believes all of Kant’s deep philosophical arguments about the nature of reality and human existence, and he uses Kant’s categorical imperative as a moral guide for every piece of decision-making in his life. David also believes in God (as Kant himself did), and situates this belief within his larger Kantian philosophical worldview. David is impressed with the liberal philosophy of justice-as-fairness as a powerful account of what Kant's categorical imperative requires in terms of justice. So, like Amy and Betty, he sees justice-as-fairness as the correct liberal philosophy. Ernie, on the other hand, does not believe in any sort of God. His value system is an ecological one. Following the writings of the environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold, Ernie sees himself as a fellow-traveller on the Earth with all other living creatures, functioning together with them in a larger community. As Leopold himself did, Ernie agrees with the liberal principles—in his view the rights of animals and parts of the ecosystem overlay across the rights of people and citizens. So let’s suppose that, envisaging human beings as animals engaged in the business of looking after their lives, Ernie holds to a Lockean liberal philosophy—albeit one that gives a strong place to stewardship and care of the natural world.

These five citizens all live together and constitute a society that each of them sees as legitimate. They all affirm its constitutional setup and agree on the legitimacy of the laws it legislates. But how is this agreement possible? There is no shared fundamental worldview on the nature of existence and the reasons for being moral. There is no agreement even on a liberal philosophy about what rights and duties each person should have.

The reason a shared view of political legitimacy is possible is because all five of these citizens share an overlapping consensus on the general liberal political principles, and therefore on the constitutional structure in which they all live. Within that structure, they argue with each other about what rights and rules are just. As things stand, Amy, Betty and David form a smaller overlapping consensus of their own—they all agree that justice-as-fairness is the best liberal philosophy. They vote on that basis, and because the three of them form a majority, the laws in the society reflect that specific liberal philosophy. The constitution, however, does not reflect the majority view of justice-as-fairness. It remains neutral between all the competing liberal philosophies. If Amy comes to be persuaded by Cathy’s political arguments, or if Betty suddenly converts to Ernie’s ecological worldview, then the voting majority will shift and new policies will be enacted as law. Again, of course, the over-arching constitutional structure will remain the same.

Why is this picture of the political landscape helpful?
This picture resonates, I think, with the actual way many people in liberal democracies accept as legitimate rules that they do not themselves accept as fully just. Ernie, for example, does not agree with the liberal philosophy held by the majority, nor does he accept the fundamental worldview (the Christian religion) that the majority of other citizens use to ultimately ground their views. Ernie is not a part of either of those overlapping conceptions. He is, however, part of the crucial overlapping consensus on the general liberal political principles and the constitutional arrangements that follow from them.

From Ernie’s perspective then:

i) Ernie agrees with everyone else about the liberal principles, and would reject as utterly illegitimate any deviation from the rights and decision-making processes enshrined in the constitution. He views rules violating the constitution and its liberal principles, such as the breaching of basic rights, as illegitimate and to be rightfully resisted.

ii) Ernie disagrees with the specific liberal philosophy that is currently reigning as a majority in the legislature—he thinks the laws enacted from this conception by the majority are not fully just, in the sense that he believes a different liberal philosophy is right. He thinks those legislated laws are, however, legitimate and he agrees to abide by them. Ernie’s acceptance of the legislated laws is guaranteed by his commitment to the rule-making procedures set down in the constitution, and it would be a betrayal of these for Ernie to use his disagreement with the law as an excuse to break the law. Of course, Ernie is a vocal opponent of many of these laws, and he hopes over time he can convince others to change their minds, so that his liberal philosophy will gain a majority in a future legislature, and he will then be able to live under the protection of rights and duties that he sees as being fully right, and not only legitimate. In summary, Ernie views locally enacted laws falling outside his liberal philosophy (but within the liberal principles) as unjust, but nevertheless legitimate. He disagrees with them vociferously, but acknowledges he morally ought to obey them.

iii) Ernie does not believe in the fundamental worldviews held by anyone else in his society. However, those doctrines held by others do not rule his life. When Amy, Betty, Cathy and David engage with Ernie in serious political dialogue, they don’t speak from the perspective of their fundamental worldviews, but rather from their specific liberal philosophy. Since this is a specification of the general liberal principles that Ernie also shares, they are speaking to him in a language he can understand and advocating a position that he can see as reasonable, even if not one that he himself upholds.

iv) Ernie lives his own life in the legal structure created by the constitution and the current legislation, through his own life-plan. Ernie’s life-plan differs from others’ plans for their lives, but this is seen by everyone as a perfectly fine situation. The political space created by the current laws and the constitutional protections give him freedom to follow his life-plan to a substantial degree.

The reason I have sympathy with Rawls’ idea of political liberalism is that it seems to me that something like the picture outlined above is actually operative in liberal democracies. That is, I see myself as someone a lot like Ernie. I have my own life-plan, but I wouldn’t want to recommend it for anyone but me. I have my own fundamental worldview or ‘first philosophy’. I think it’s mostly on the right track, but I don’t think anyone who is sceptical of it is being unreasonable or stubbornly ignorant. I have my own specific liberal philosophy—it’s basically a welfarist Lockean political theory. I think laws that depart too far from its classical liberal rights are unjust, but that doesn’t mean I think I am entitled to disobey those laws. To the contrary, if the majority of my citizenry vote for a particular party or policy, then I accept that result as legitimate. That doesn’t mean I’d accept anything, however. There are laws that could be passed, or political changes that could happen, that I would think are illegitimate and unacceptable. These would be laws that violated citizens' most basic rights, or those arising after an illicit seizing of power by a military coup. These fall outside what is allowed by the liberal principles and the constitutional structure I accept.

In other words, Rawls’ theory provides a sensible account of political positions that I think all of us can understand: it allows us to distinguish between ‘not something I’d choose’, ‘immoral, ‘unjust’ and ‘illegitimate’, and explains how we can form genuine allegiances and shared understandings with people from all sorts of diverse fundamental worldviews.

The Burdens of Judgment and the Fact of Incommunicability
Now all of this opens up two big questions. One, why should we expect the overlapping consensus on the liberal principles to arrive and to stay stable over time, from the point of view of each of the fundamental worldviews? Two, why does each citizen take their allegiance to the liberal principles as the priority, rather than their specific liberal philosophy?

The key answer to both questions lies in an awareness of reciprocity—a way in which we realize we are alike to others and they to us. We all have our fundamental worldviews, whether philosophical, moral or religious, and we have deep reasons to believe these are true. But we find that these reasons are, in a very potent sense, incommunicable. We cannot simply persuade others, with any guarantee of success, into believing our religion or first philosophy by reporting the certainty that gripped us when we first read the Bible or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Even if we put those texts into others’ hands, they might not care to read them. Even if they do, we find there is no guarantee they will be converted. And even if they are converted, we may find to our dismay that their newfound beliefs are actually somewhat removed from ours.

What is to explain this perplexing difficulty in communicating the deepest truths from one person to another? The answer might be that reasoning and thinking about first principles and theoretical philosophy is a difficult and ambiguous business. Rawls calls these difficulties the ‘burdens of judgment’, and probably this is a part of the picture, at least in terms of why we struggle to get consensus on philosophical truths. But I don’t think we need to commit to this. Many people adopt their fundamental worldviews on the basis of faith, and the complexities of abstruse philosophical reasoning have nothing whatsoever to do with their choices. So I think we should dispense with Rawls’ idea of the burdens of judgment, and simply appeal to the undeniable fact, apparent to everyone, that truths about such matters are notoriously difficult to convey. Call this the ‘fact of incommunicability’. We encounter this fact every time we try and convert someone to our fundamental worldviews—and all the more every time they try and convert us right back. We feel we are not being unreasonable in resisting their alleged ‘truths’, and—we reflect—they are surely not being unreasonable in resisting ours.

The same holds true, though to a more limited extent, for the specific liberal philosophies. Here again, we witness what apparently reasonable people engaging in good faith with others, sharing their reasons, but without this giving rise to any shared consensus on whether justice-as-fairness, left-libertarianism or any other given liberal system of rights and duties is true.

For these reasons, we cannot expect to create legitimacy of government by a consensus on fundamental worldviews or on specific liberal philosophies. Humans are just too darn diverse for this to be possible. People split into a bewildering plurality of beliefs and values at a moment’s notice, and resist being reformed into a unity by persuasion, proselytizing or exhortation. Basic reciprocity requires that we can no more expect others to be ruled by our fundamental worldview than we ourselves would be willing to be ruled by their doctrines.

But shared agreement on more basic principles is possible—indeed, the very same argument given above as to why it is next to impossible to expect agreement or alignment on fundamental beliefs itself presses us towards the basic liberal ideas of tolerance, freedom and equality. Because everyone is different in their fundamental worldviews, and will remain so, we can all get together and agree on a political system that tolerates this difference.

If that little argument doesn’t convince you, then perhaps the point can be made simply through observation. Countless fundamental worldviews are in fact compatible with liberal principles. We witness this every day in western liberal democracies. Because we have this level of agreement—this overlapping consensus—we can agree on much of the substance of a constitution, namely, the protection of basic rights. But we also know that laws must be made, governing one way or the other further arrangements, such as those governing equality of opportunity and distributive justice. As such, we agree on ways of deciding these issues (for example through majority vote) and ways of giving each other reasons that they can understand for why they should adopt our political views. The specific liberal philosophy helps here. If we make arguments from our own liberal philosophy, then even when we speak to others who have a different liberal philosophy, we are dealing in concepts (freedom, equality, fairness, cooperation) that each of us understands. As such, we can have an overlapping consensus on a group of broad principles, and upon the procedures determining more specific legislation.

The liberal principles of equality and liberty are all we agree on. But when combined with the facts of pluralism and incommunicability, they force us to realise that all we can expect of others is acceptance of those liberal principles. There is no agreement beyond those principles (the fact of pluralism) and we cannot expect to produce such agreement either through argument or reporting about the revealed word of God (the fact of incommunicability). We are in the position of needing more specific rules than these general principles offer, so we have to come up with some ways of creating more specific rules notwithstanding the fact that those more specific rules will inevitably clash with elements of someone’s (perhaps our own) specific liberal philosophy.

Ultimately, the resulting conception of politics (political liberalism, as Rawls calls it) provides us with a way of holding our own views on what is true and just, but at the same time believing that our truth—because it is not communicable—cannot justifiably be a legitimate reason for demanding others conform to it.

It seems to me that this view really does help explain what is otherwise very perplexing—namely, that many citizens of liberal democracies, with very different fundamental worldviews, are able to genuinely perceive their nation’s laws as legitimate and justified, even when they in fact disagree with, object to, and vote against those laws.

What is the relationship between the fundamental worldview and the liberal principles?
This question may be asked differently. We might ask—why should we expect an overlapping consensus on general liberal principles, given the breathtaking diversity of people’s fundamental worldviews? Why don’t people simply read off what is right and good from their fundamental worldviews and reject as illegitimate anything that departs from this specific account?

Rawls is, I think, less than explicit on this question. He does point out that there is usually a certain amount of ‘slackness’ in fundamental worldviews that make them open to different interpretations. As such, there will usually be a way of making them compatible with the liberal principles. Rawls’ argument is probably true, but it only gets us so far. Saying that Christianity is compatible with liberal principles is not the same as telling us that all Christians have compelling reasons to actually interpret their religion in this way.

So are there such reasons? I won’t go into any details here, but I think there is much to be said on this question. One promising answer is that any given fundamental worldview is likely to give general commandments to value peace, cooperation, respect, dignity and fairness. Given the evident facts of pluralism and incommunicability, it makes sense to interpret these values in accord with liberal principles. That is, because everyone is bound to have different worldviews, and we can’t expect to convert them just by showing them the Bible/Quran/Nicomachean Ethics, peace and respect for dignity demand that we show them tolerance, thereby seeing them as free to do their own thing, and equal with us in their entitlement to do so. Imagine yourself in the position of John Locke, sitting down to pen 'A Letter Concerning Toleration'. As a devout Christian, you look around at the horrific conflict and internecine violence caused by clashes between different religious groups. Whatever Jesus wanted, you think to yourself, he didn't want this. From a Biblically-justified concern with peace and gentleness, then, you are moved to adopt tolerant liberal principles.

Another promising answer is that people that hold a fundamental worldview also have moral intuitions and feelings about particular situations. Almost every non-psychopath can feel sympathy and empathy, feel that violence needs a special justification if it is to be legitimate, and feel the moral pull of reciprocity. As such, ordinary people may well try to stake out a political philosophy that accords with both their fundamental worldview and those moral judgments about specific questions (Rawls calls this a method of ‘reflective equilibrium’). As an example of this, one of my esteemed colleagues at Griffith University, Associate Professor and Imam Mohamad Abdalla, says that when he speaks to young Australian Muslims about values, he tells them to take from Australian culture everything they think is good in it, and to take from Islam everything they think is good in it. That seems to me perfectly sensible advice—advice, moreover, that could certainly motivate the alignment of a fundamental worldview with broad liberal principles of equality, freedom and tolerance.

There are other ways I think fundamental worldviews could have reasons to be brought to undergird and commit to liberal principles, but I will not try the reader’s patience any further—given what has already been a pretty long discussion.

To sum up, Rawls’ theory of political liberalism offers a useful model of how it is possible for people with conflicting and irreconcilable fundamental worldviews to come to genuinely commit to a liberal constitutional structure, and accept as legitimate laws enacted within that constitutional structure, even if they view any particular one of those laws as strictly speaking unjust.

A few notes on reading Rawls
In the foregoing I have renamed a few of Rawls’s key terms. What Rawls calls a ‘comprehensive doctrine’ I’ve term a ‘fundamental worldview’. What Rawls calls a specific liberal ‘political conception of justice’ I’ve called a ‘liberal philosophy’. What Rawls calls a ‘conception of the good’ I’ve call a ‘life-plan’.

One of the reasons Rawls’ theory of political liberalism is so difficult is that Rawls developed the position over a long period of years (from around 1985-1997), shifting what he said as he responded to reviews and objections. Unfortunately however, Rawls never left us with a full and comprehensive statement of his views before he died, so his final position needs to be gleaned from several different sources. A good place to start is his final article on the subject:

John Rawls, ‘The Idea of Public Reason Revisited’ The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Summer, 1997), pp. 765-807 (reprinted in the Expanded Edition of Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 440-490).

There is some excellent secondary literature, of course. Two that I found particularly helpful in developing the above account, and that I highly recommend, are:

Wenar, L. (1995). Political Liberalism: An Internal Critique. Ethics, 106(1), 32-62.

Dreben, B. (2003). On Rawls and Political Liberalism. In S. Freeman (Ed.), Cambridge Companion to Rawls (pp. 316-346). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Climate Change: denial, trust and ideology

Suppose you, as I, believe in human-created climate change, namely, in increasing temperatures caused primarily by the use of fossil fuels.

Why do you do so? What warrants that belief?

Well, you might be tempted to answer, something like the following: ‘Science. I believe that through its time-tested methods science can produce true claims about the world.’

But that isn’t really the full answer is it? Because it leaves something pivotal out of the equation. Trust.

If you are like me (that is, you are not a professional climatologist), you believe in climate change not merely because you have a general, sensible faith in the scientific method, but also because you trust what is declared to be true by the overwhelming majority of scientists who have examined the issue in detail over a considerable period of time. These are two different beliefs, and it is altogether possible to hold the first without holding the second. I’ll come to why in a moment.

But first, you might object that your belief isn’t about trust at all. After all, you know the science. The high levels of CO2 (and some other carbon-based molecules) in the atmosphere allow the sun’s energy in, but trap it from coming out. Net result, the earth heats up. If anyone is sceptical about the basic mechanism, they’re welcome to wind up the windows on their car on a hot day and sit inside it for an hour or two. Same principle at work. See how long they can retain their scepticism as the temperature pushes skyward (so to speak).

But that belief in the potency of the basic mechanism, on its own, is plainly insufficient. For knowing and accepting the basic mechanism cannot justify a belief that human-induced climate change is in fact happening. After all, it could be that humans are simply not adding nearly enough carbon to the atmosphere to get a result, or there may be any one of a wide number of counter-forces at work, that push the system back to equilibrium. If you doubt the truth of both these two possibilities, then I submit you do so not because you have read and evaluated all of the complicated research papers involved, for and against, but because you trust the many scientists who have read all those papers or did the research themselves. If that’s right, then you, like me, believe in human-created climate change not merely because you believe in science but also because you trust a particular cohort of people.

In other words, you believe not only in science, but in other people. Your beliefs are not only scientific and climatological; they are also sociological.

And this brings me to the nub of what I want to talk about. It is often observed that people from the right-wing side of politics tend to be much more likely to be climate change ‘deniers’. Certainly that is my experience (though, of course, there are notable exceptions). And on the basis of this observed correlation between libertarianism and denialism, commentators tend to complain about a world where people allow their political values to distort their beliefs about fact.

After all, aren’t these climate-change deniers committing a straightforward fallacy? There are value judgments and there are descriptive facts. Merely possessing values on one side of the political spectrum should not make a person—if they are reasoning appropriately—any more likely to believe an objective scientific fact. The latter is purely a matter of reason and the proper weighing of empirical evidence, none of which should be infected by prior political commitments.

The common diagnosis offered for why this fallacy occurs (in my experience) is that the right wing climate-change deniers have realised that if climate change is true, then, a) all their productive capitalist enterprises over the years have caused a terrible catastrophe, and, b) they need now to stop doing what they have been doing previously. But these right-wing types do not want to feel badly about themselves and their peers, so they resist believing the first point (a). And they do not want to stop making oodles of money, so they resist believing the second point (b). And so the story goes. These powerful, self-interested motives to resist belief explain why we see advocates of the political right denying the fact about climate change.

I daresay there are at least some cases where that is exactly what is happening. But there is another explanation that is also worth consideration.

It begins with a very general view about human nature, namely, that people are very self-interested. People may tell you they are altruistic and idealistic, but the grim fact is that (this view of human nature declares) the overwhelming majority of people, the overwhelming majority of the time, are in it for themselves and for their nearest and dearest. You can perhaps convince them to avoid violence, but anything more than that is in the end asking too much. This is a view of human nature with a substantial philosophical pedigree--it can be found in Machiavelli, Hobbes and Montesquieu, just to name a few.

From this perspective, a libertarian free market can seem pretty appealing. For one thing, the rule of the market is caveat emptor—buyer beware—which means that people who want to make money need to produce a decent product and preserve their reputation for doing so. As Adam Smith said, we rely on the baker’s self-interest, rather than his beneficence, in our expectations about the quality and reliability of his product. The market works because it aligns people’s incentives such that the self-interested thing to do is also one that improves the situation of others. It may not do so perfectly, but it is the least-bad political system open to such fallen creatures as we. Of course, there is the tricky matter of ensuring the rule of law governs, and not anarchy. The issue is vexing on the view of human nature we are speaking of here, because those policing and ruling are just as self-interested as everybody else. Indeed, probably more so. Power corrupts, after all. But at least the state required is as minimal as possible, lessening the incentives for evil people to use it as a mechanism for expanding their own passions and prejudices. When it comes to government, we use mechanisms such as democratic accountability, the separation of powers, and institutional checks and balances, to try to minimize the inevitable damage done by nakedly self-interested actors possessing political power.

In sum, if we believe that human beings are for the most part selfish, then a free market and minimal government might be the best system we can reasonably hope for. Call the people who believe this ‘cynical libertarians’ (obviously there are other reasons one might be a libertarian).

Cynical libertarians distrust people in general, and people in power in particular. They distrust bureaucracies because they think bureaucrats only rarely (when there is very powerful oversight) can be trusted to do the right thing. Bureaucrats are more liable to work to ensure they remain employed and well-paid, which might mean engaging in turf wars, exacerbating the problem they were meant to fix, expanding their responsibilities while undermining their accountability, and in general spending more time rising the ranks than actually doing anything useful. Remind you of any politicians you know?

And cynical libertarians of course can find ample evidence of this type of self-interested belief in the history of science. Sometimes ordinary people seem to forget the howlers that science has thrown up from time to time—‘N rays’ are a hilariously apt example, where patriotic French scientists managed to convince themselves of all sorts of nonsense to further their own ambitions and national pride. To be sure, science eventually sorts these things out, but there is little doubt it can take itself down blind paths for a considerable period of time if there is enough institutional reward for its doing so.

What has this got to do with climate change?

Simply this. Cynical libertarians don’t believe scientists on this matter because they don’t trust them. The reason they don’t trust them is for the reason we have been exploring—people are self-interested and they will do the right thing only when they have a substantial self-interest in doing so. But the motivation the cynical libertarians perceive for these scientists is not that they will be rewarded for performing an objective analysis and report of the facts. If climate change is believed to be true, then climatology (and a host of related disciplines) as an institution will be massively resourced, funded and respected. If climate change is accepted, then climatology is no longer ‘merely academic’. It is not even something that might be handy to know about. To the contrary, climatology is suddenly a life-or-death matter and it must be resourced and respected as such. Research institutions must be created, staffed and funded. New jobs, international conferences and PhD positions will be created. Politicians, UN officials and journalists now hang on the words of those reporting the latest evidence. In a word, climatology has become important. (If only philosophy and ethics were so lucky...)

Cynical libertarians will observe that this creates a massive incentive to nuance the evidence at every single juncture, by every single actor involved. It might even create a system of group-think, where every actor involved in an institution all have a vested interest to think in a particular way, with the result that they wind up speaking in an echo chamber—every interaction ratifies their belief. It might even create a process where institutional actors use every means at their disposal to guard their own theories against all opposing arguments and evidence. This is why the Climategate scandal was seen as such an issue by this type of climate deniers (I would link to the Wikipedia entry for Climategate here—except of course that Wikepedia notoriously does not have one! Who’s in denial now?). Climategate was an example of exactly the processes the cynical libertarians expect to see, given their views on human nature and motivation.

And all this goes doubly so for the now-sizable bureaucracy bulwarking and resourcing these scientists. If climate change was shown to be false, it is not that some of these people would merely lose their jobs—entire government departments would shut down, entire ministries! This is turf war with a vengeance.

So, with all that in mind, how might we argue with or engage these cynical libertarian climate deniers? For the point I have been trying to make is that these are rational people who have rational reasons for their beliefs—it is not as if they are simply being bloody-minded or are ideologically blinded.

The first thing to note is that the simple accumulation of more and more evidence by the same scientists is unlikely to persuade the cynical libertarian. The institutional incentives are if anything becoming increasingly more powerful, not less. So there's no point in enthusing about a new 'consenus' among scientists about the mounting evidence for grave climate change. To the cynical libertarian, this is all just more of the same.

It’s also unlikely we can just wait until even blind Freddy can see that things really are patently heating up. There will be enough local variation that resolute scepticism will remain possible for a considerable period of time, and heat sinks, especially the ocean, will absorb (but of course not dissipate) much of the increased heat energy accumulated by our planet.

Still, a few avenues are possible.

A first method is draw attention to those scientists who accept climate change but do not have a vested interest in doing so. My understanding is that many scientists in industry fall into this category, and it seems implausible to think that their judgments on this issue are being distorted by self-interest. Their beliefs should be taken seriously.

A similar story is true of those who have long been critical of exaggerated environmental predictions, but who accept the reality and the importance of climate change—Bjorn Lomborg, the ‘sceptical environmentalist’, is a good example here. He made a career out of suspicion of environmental histrionics, but he is not in denial about climate change. Yet in terms of personal incentives, he would surely have much to gain from adopting a position of complete denial, and it is telling that he did not.

It might also be worth raising the cynical libertarian’s awareness that she needs to guard against falling victim to the same belief mechanism herself that she locates in others. She may be telling herself that she disbelieves others because of their incentives to think one way rather than another, but it may well be that she herself has incentives (pecuniary, social and ideological) to be sceptical in this case. It is a basic failure of rationality to forget that one is oneself a human being, capable of all the same mistakes and biases that we regularly attribute to other human beings.

But perhaps the most fruitful message to take away is simply that some climate deniers may be operating on a rational basis, and are therefore open to rational argument and evidence. Treating them as irrational or ideologically blind will only fuel their scepticism. If we treat their beliefs seriously, then we can start deliberately accumulating the type of evidence and argument that they will take as probative. 

And that could be a small but significant victory in the long process of moving us all to a sustainable way of life.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Why Australia hates thinkers: the untold story

Recently, I read a thought-provoking opinion-piece of the title used above: ‘Why Australia hates thinkers.’ The writer (A. Simmonds) put together a disconcertingly persuasive argument that Australia doesn’t like its academics, and she speculated intelligently on the causes of this situation.
In my own experience, for what it is worth, I’ve never come face-to-face with this sort of anti-intellectual fervour. I live outside a smallish country town that is very middle-Australian. If I’m asked what I do for a job, I tell people the unvarnished truth: I’m a philosopher. Often the locals don’t know what that means, which I think is fair enough. But after I explain, they are usually interested. I have never felt any sort of explicit or implicit antagonism towards what I do. I think philosophy is valuable, and I try and infect other people with my enthusiasm for what I do.
Maybe I have never had a bad experience because, while I expect ordinary folk to be interested in what my job involves, I never expect them to be impressed. Philosophy in particular, and academic research more generally, is not inherently self-justifying. People are entitled to be unsure about whether my job really contributes to the world they live in—especially because, as an academic researcher, their taxes pay for my wages. If I want people to be impressed by what I do, then I think the onus is on me to show them that my profession is impressive.
Still, maybe I have just been lucky. I have certainly heard anecdotal horror stories, and (as mentioned above) Simmons makes a pretty good case that intellectuals are not held in high esteem in the Australian community. Is it really true that only 5% of the panellists on Q&A have a research background? That is frightening.
Simmons supplies a wealth of sensible reasons why we might see this antipathy between academics and ordinary Australians. But I think there is another reason for the hatred, as well as the ones she considers, namely: Australia hates thinkers because thinkers hate Australia.
Perhaps that is an overly tendentious way of expressing the point. And it goes without saying that I am pretty keen on academics—I share many of their values, admire their skills and value their views. After all, I am an academic myself.
But one thing I don’t share with many of my brethren is what seems to me their very dim views on Australian society. Now I am speaking in generalities of course; there are countless academics who love the society around them and support it in immeasurable ways. And everything I say below is limited to my own experience, which of course might be quite unrepresentative of the true perspectives of Australian academia. But in my experience a sizable amount of scholars (and research students) in the humanities and social sciences hold very deprecatory views about their country and fellow citizens, and that in conversation, in lectures and at conferences they espouse those views with the confidence that everyone else present is assumed to hold them too.
Let me give a few examples. The main one is racism. In my experience, lots of academics think that ordinary Australians are, by and large, racist, or that they harbour closely related vices. If it is possible to explain any social phenomenon by appealing to racism, then that is the chosen explanation. If Australians worry about immigration and ensuing cultural changes, then that is because they are racist and xenophobic. If Australians worry about international terrorism and religious extremism, that is because they are racist and Islamaphobic. If Australians patriotically celebrate their national days, then that is because they are insular and in denial about the country’s colonialist and racist past. And so on. Now it is certainly true that racism could (and for at least some Australians unquestionably does) explain these views. But there are a host of reasons, rational and irrational, morally acceptable and morally worrisome, that could also explain them. In my experience, academics can display a tendency to impute the worst of motivations to any political standpoint with which they disagree.
I find the racism example perplexing because I don’t really understand the motivation for it. It seems to me that calling someone or a society racist is a very serious accusation, and that it is a basic moral principle to only impute the worst of motives to a person when you have powerful reasons to do so. There are many subtle issues at work in teasing out a person’s reasons for their socio-political views, yet some academics display all the nuanced subtlety of a mousetrap to this task.
While the racism attribution perplexes me, a more understandable scorn of middle Australian might arise from the academic’s carefully considered political or social views. For example, many academics I know have political views that are well out of step with those of the ordinary population. Often they are far-left egalitarian, but sometimes they are far-right libertarian. And accompanying this is a view that the larger population’s political perspectives are not merely wrong, but are beyond the pale of acceptability. To have voted for John Howard, for example, or to be considering voting for Tony Abbot in the forthcoming election is not merely mistaken, the assumption seems to be, but is on a plane with complicity in Nazism. Reading the comments section on the academic-journalism website The Conversation contains innumerable instances of academics dismissing an article or argument merely on the grounds that it is right-wing, or aligns with a position portrayed by the Murdoch press. On this footing, academics dislike Australians because of their politics.
Sometimes (and this is a separate point) this dislike can be related to the deeper theoretical standpoint held by the academic. Lots of social and political theories tell stories about the larger population that cast that population as dupes of a larger ideology. They are mindless drones so inculcated into capitalist or patriarchal or colonialist belief-systems that they are unaware of what is really happening in the world, and—short of having their consciousness raised through the appropriate university degree—are incapable of critically reflecting on it. Blinded by the overarching dominant paradigm, the population is entirely unaware of its own motivations for its views and practices. Indeed, the views in question might not even be political in nature—people who hang on to the idea of ‘objective truths’ might be cast as victims of a socially constructed worldview that utterly distorts accurate understanding of the world. On this footing, then, the thought is that some academics hold theoretical views that are bound to offend the people that the theory in question aims to explain.
Now there are a few objections one could make to what I have been saying. It might be charged the most academics in the humanities and social sciences simply do not hold the views I am suggesting they do. As such (i) academics aren’t lightning fast in ascribing racist and xenophobic views to middle-Australia; (ii) even if academics do share different political views to middle-Australians, they accept that the vast majority of Australians have at least some decent reasons for their positions and that rational debate with them is possible; and (iii) academics don’t cleave to theories that cast ordinary people as mindless dupes bereft of reason and autonomy. Perhaps I am myself, in expressing these views about some of my peers, only replicating the very vices I am attributing to those peers, namely, of hasty generalization and a tendency to impute the worst of motives.
However, there is another objection that may be made, which is that—while many academics do in fact hold these views and do in fact behave in these ways—they are totally justified in doing so. They have conclusive evidence that Australians are racist, powerful arguments that Australian’s political views are unacceptable and irrational, and solid evidence for believing that most people are un-reflective pawns in an ideological conspiracy.
Suppose this is the response given to what I have said. If so, though, it hardly seems fair to complain if one is then disliked by the society. If an academic has an explicit and conscious view that middle-Australia is racist, say, then of course they must expect that middle-Australia will be less than enthusiastic about hearing from that academic and about footing the bill for his or her salary. How could it be otherwise? No-one likes to be told they are immoral or stupid, or that their views are not a product of a reasonable thought process. No-one likes to be scorned or sneered at, or treated as if they are not worth including in discussion and decision-making. It seems to me there is less need to cast about looking for other cultural reasons for Australian disdain for its academics when there is an obvious reason staring us in the face.
So my final point is this: if we as academics have considered views that are bound to be offensive to the wider population (because our considered views are, effectively, that they are immoral and stupid), then we need to accept that they will take offense. If we don’t want to give offence (either for moral or pragmatic reasons—given that in a democracy the public has a hand on the purse strings) then we need to be a lot more sensitive, and perhaps a little less self-righteous, than we currently are.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

R2P and POC in the UN Security Council

Enhancing Protection Capacity: Policy Guide to the Responsibility to Protect and the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts

From 2011-12, I was part of a research team investigating the relationship between two international protection norms: the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Protection of Civilians (POC). In this blogpost, I reflect on a few recent developments on this topic. 

(My thoughts here are my own, and not necessarily those of the larger research team. These thoughts do, however, follow from several co-authored news articles (with Professors Ramesh Thakur and Charles Sampford), most recently in the Canberra Times.)

A primer: R2P and POC
In brief, R2P is a commitment to stop atrocities: genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. R2P was formed in response to two events—the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 where there was little effective international action, and NATO’s military action with respect to Kosovo in 1999, where there was military intervention, but the action occurred without Security Council authorization, and therefore seemingly in violation of international law. The intention behind the development of R2P was to create a norm that could ensure that the international community could respond to looming atrocities—but also that such responses were made consistent with international law. R2P has three parts (three ‘pillars’ as the Secretary-General terms them):  1) States have a responsibility to protect their own populations from atrocity crimes. 2) The international community should work consensually with states to help them build the capacity to protect their populations. 3) In the event that the state is manifestly failing to protect its population, the international community through the United Nations Security Council has a backup responsibility to protect the population. R2P was unanimously accepted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, and then ‘reaffirmed’ by the Security Council in 2006 in Resolution 1674.

For its part, POC began as that part of the laws of war (International Humanitarian Law, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977) that aimed to protect non-combatants from the more egregious harms to which armed conflict exposes them. In this form POC is a matter of law. Over the last couple of decades however, POC has become more than restrictions on combatant actions and tactics. The norm that the unarmed should be protected from widespread, lawless, brutal violence informs the actions and decisions of the Security Council, of peacekeepers and of humanitarian agencies. POC can also become a part of military doctrine when the objectives are to save civilians from other combatants.

Given their different origins, each principle is evaluated rather differently. Formed in the crucible of Rwanda and Kosovo, R2P is inherently controversial. It directly confronts state sovereignty and allows (indeed, it morally obliges) the international community to act with coercive force against states if necessary to protect populations. After R2P’s acceptance by the UN in 2005 and 2006, many nations became increasingly concerned about its capacity for being a vehicle for neo-colonialism and regime change. In response, R2P’s consensual aspects were emphasized by its proponents. R2P was not merely about military responses, it was propounded, but also about preventive action and support to states that wanted to protect their populations but were unable to do so. In short, R2P began its existence as highly controversial, and has tried (with mixed success) to journey away from those beginnings to a less contentious status.
UN Troops Deployed to DRC Town Amid Unrest
Photo Courtesy UN pics:  (#514194)

In a sense, POC has taken the reverse journey. As a part of the laws of war, formed both through treaty and customary law, POC is utterly uncontroversial. To be sure, states and non-state insurgencies regularly violate the laws of war and target civilians. But they almost always deny that they are doing this, and pay at least lip service to the importance of POC. No state is willing to stand up and reject POC as a whole—to do so in the current international context would be reputational suicide. But POC increasingly involves more than the mere application of international law. It has become a policy commitment (unevenly applied, to be sure) by the UN Security Council, and since 1999 a positive call for peacekeepers to where possible protect civilians from armed actors. While there are real humanitarian gains from these practices, these shifts in POC create controversy, because they open the possibility of international force being used against state or state-sponsored actors, and of peacekeeping forces effectively becoming a ‘third belligerent’ to armed conflicts.

What then, of the relationship between R2P and POC?

Several months before our research team released its Policy Guide, the Secretary-General put out his 2012 Report to the Security Council on POC. In its Operative Paragraph 21 the Secretary-General squarely confronted the question of the relationship between R2P and POC. He drew a stark distinction between the two norms, asserting that POC was a ‘legal concept’ and R2P a ‘political concept’ and declaring that POC only applies in armed conflict.

Our research and our Policy Guide disagreed with both these declarations. Why? For two reasons. One, they are demonstrably incorrect. Two, they are unhelpful to the cause of protecting civilians.

First, their inaccuracy. To be sure, POC was initially a legal concept, defined by International Humanitarian Law. But it has since grown beyond this to a policy framework, guiding the Security Council, peacekeepers, humanitarians and the international community more generally. The commitment to positively protect civilians taken on by each of these actors is not a legal concept. None of these actors are legally obliged to protect civilians, except perhaps in very, very rare situations. To say POC is based on a legal concept is fair enough, so far as it goes. But to say it is a legal concept, as if peacekeepers and the Council are directly bound by law to protect civilians, is false and misleading.

The characterization of R2P as a ‘political concept’ is also flawed. Some aspects of R2P are straightforward law; the duties states have not to perpetrate atrocities are plainly legal ones. States also have some legal duties not to be complicit in genocide occurring in other countries, as the ICJ determined in the Bosnia Genocide Case. Asserting R2P to be a ‘political concept’, while appropriately acknowledging R2P's politicized aspects, risks distracting attention from its legal elements and its larger basis in international law.

Similarly, the assertion that POC applies only to armed conflicts is mistaken—if by armed conflict we mean ‘armed conflict’ in the sense determined by international law. The types of cases the Secretary-General himself sees as POC concerns in his reports often range beyond armed conflicts in the legal sense of that phrase. So too the Council and peacekeepers are not obliged to make sophisticated legal judgements about the lawful status of a situation before they protect civilians. If there is widespread, lawless, brutal, systematic violence occurring from the armed towards the unarmed, then that is sufficient to make the protection of civilians an international concern, even if (especially if) the violence is entirely one-sided and so not an armed conflict in the strict sense. To be sure, POC does not apply in peacetime. A totalitarian government repressing its citizens is a human rights concern, but it is not a POC issue. But concerns about POC do not have to wait for the victimised group to arm itself and fight back in order to create an armed conflict proper.

Second, the Secretary-General’s assertion is unhelpful to the cause of protecting civilians. The main worry here is that asserting that POC is a purely legal concept, and restricting it to exclusively armed conflicts, risks rolling back many of the POC policies and reforms that have happened in the last two decades. POC expanded beyond the strict requirements of international law precisely because civilians—in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, the DRC and elsewhere—needed positive protection. It seemed unconscionable to do nothing in the face of preventable atrocities, especially when they occurred before the eyes of peacekeepers.  To assert that POC is a legal concept opens the alarming possibility that POC might be returned to its earlier status as no more than that. If this were to happen, POC would no longer be a humanitarian norm motivating peacekeepers and the Council to positive action. 

It is already possible to see movement in this direction occurring. After the Secretary-General’s assertions in his 2012 Report, Pakistan was gifted the opportunity of pointing out that some of the cases discussed in the Report were not, strictly speaking, armed conflicts. Pakistan was of course correct in this assessment. Indeed, it would apply to every single one of the Secretary-General’s Reports since they began in 1999. And it would also apply to much of the Security Council’s action and discussion with respect to POC. Libya in its early stages was not an armed conflict, yet was a POC issue for the Security Council. Similarly Syria in 2011 was not legally an armed conflict (it did not attain this status until early-mid 2012) yet was a clear object of the Council’s POC discussion and concern—though not, of course, action. If POC is to continue to function as a robust policy framework for responding to widespread, lawless, brutal armed violence, then the international community needs to squarely assert—as many states have done in the Council Open Debates—that protecting civilians is important both inside and outside armed conflicts. And, as a corollary, they should assert that while POC is of course based on law, it extends beyond strict legal requirements to include policy frameworks and practices that are moral, but not legal, imperatives. Armed actors summarily attacking unarmed populations always constitutes a violation of international law (whether the laws of war, human rights law or international criminal law). But the international community’s positive efforts to protect those civilians extend—and must extend—beyond narrow legal requirements.

If this is right, then it opens the question: Why did the Secretary-General make this assertion in the first place? After all, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has been a great supporter of the United Nation’s attempts to protect civilians. Why would he make any assertion liable to roll back reforms he himself has achieved? The answer, I think, is that the intention was simply to try and make POC appear less controversial. Especially in the wake of the regime-change in Libya, and also the use of French military assets in Côte D’Ivoire to protect civilians, there was increased suspicion about POC and substantial pushback against what had previously been widely accepted POC inclusions in Security Council resolutions and peacekeeping mandates. The wish to make POC more acceptable drove the drafters of the Secretary-General’s report to present a bright-line distinction between R2P (controversial/political) and POC (acceptable/legal). While the drafters’ intentions were no doubt laudable, however, the result was unhelpful.
Security Council Extends African Union Mission to Somalia
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What does the future hold?

Following the Secretary-General’s report, in the 2012 Open Debate on POC, the ‘Group of Friends on POC’ (and some member-states as well) used the Secretary-General’s ‘legal concept’ language. Representing fifteen UN member-states, with three current members of the Security Council, the Group stated: “In our endeavor to re-establish confidence, it is of the utmost importance to reaffirm the basic tenets of the protection of civilians as a legal concept based on international humanitarian law, human rights refugee law and international criminal law.”

It was in the context that our research team launched the Policy Guide, and presented our findings to delegations at the United Nations in New York in November 2012.

In the 2013 Open Debate last month (February), several states repeated their endorsement of the Secretary-General’s distinction in general terms. Importantly however, the Group of Friends no longer used the ‘legal concept’ wording, and nor did any member-state. Nor did the resulting Presidential Statement make any such claim.

If what I have argued above is correct, this is a positive shift. As our Policy Guide argued in some depth, and as I have sketched here, the ‘legal concept’ view is an inaccurate description of POC’s role at the United Nations, and it would be a catastrophe for vulnerable civilians worldwide if POC was to be scaled back to its bare legal minimum.

Later in 2013 the Secretary-General will produce his next POC Report. It is to be hoped that his previous declaration of the distinction between R2P and POC will not be repeated, and will be allowed to drift into disuse. Similarly, it is to be hoped that the next Security Council resolution on POC (there has not been one since the Secretary-General’s 2012 Report) does not endorse the ‘legal concept/political concept’ distinction.

Security Council resolutions carry serious and sometimes far-reaching consequences, and every word matters. It could prove a serious setback to subsequent protection efforts if the Council unwittingly entrenched a concept of POC that is an inaccurate and enervated characterization of its current substance. While it is always tempting to make policies and practices seem as uncontroversial as possible, in the context of civilian protection clarity and determination are crucial. There is little point in trying to achieve consensus on POC if that threatens to return the United Nations civilian protection agenda to its status during the dark days of Rwanda and Srebrenica.