Monday, October 3, 2011


If I hadn't gotten enough of arguing about issues I care about with smart people (I just presented a paper at a workshop at Princeton yesterday, and talked about utilitarianism with a bunch of smart Rutgers grad students!) here's Jonathan Bernstein criticizing my defense of an approach to politics grounded in principles.
First of all, most of us don't actually have "well-reasoned principles" to apply to particular cases. Sinhababu is a philosopher, but most of us aren't -- and we're not ideologues, either. Establishing a hierarchy in which "well-reasoned principles" are the best basis for politics is, in my view, awfully risky if one is concerned about full participation for all, including those unable, untrained, or just uninterested in formulating or adopting such principles.
I definitely don't want to exclude people from political participation because they're bad at abstract moral reasoning. Even if all people can do as voters is register their own level of happiness at the time, they're making sure people whose policies create great unhappiness get thrown out. That keeps the system from going off the rails. This is a version of an argument for democracy I've heard people attribute to Amartya Sen in regards to famines. It's really important for political leaders to know that if they let people go hungry, they'll lose the next election, because that makes them take steps to avert mass starvation.

If there's any sort of prescription that comes out of my arguments, it's one that operates at an individual level for people who have already become political activists. You, intelligent and politically engaged reader of this blog, should have some interest in figuring out what really is good and bad in general, so that you can better pursue the good. There are some people to whom I wouldn't suggest this, because they might be unable, untrained, or uninterested, as Jonathan says. And there are plenty of people who shouldn't try to learn about monetary policy, for just the same reasons. That stuff can be hard! But if you can learn more about monetary policy or what counts as making the world a better place, that's a way to make yourself a better political agent. There isn't enough time to do all of it, since there's a tremendous amount of important information out there, but the more you can learn, the better off you are.

Here I think there's plenty of common ground between Jonathan and I. The political system definitely needs to be able to include the preferences of those who aren't good at reasoning out good general principles, and they should get into politics so their preferences can be included (this seems to be Jonathan's point). But one of many ways to become a better political agent is to be able to do that kind of reasoning (this is my point). I don't see anything incompatible here.

I wanted to address something at the end of Jonathan's post too:
One is that I'm likely to avoid certain types of errors through group affiliation politics; if my only question is "Is it good for the Jews?", then I may still be wrong about what's actually good for the Jews, and I may also accidentally support some monstrous policy because I overlook its implications outside of the Jews, but it's at least got to be a heck of a lot easier than figuring out whether a policy meets utilitarian (or, say, Randian) principles.
Maybe it's easier to figure out what's good for the Jews than to figure out what's good for everyone. But doing politics this way will perpetuate gruesome injustices. Horrific misery persists throughout history because people continue to support policies that cause massive suffering to others (slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, wealth inequalities that lead to preventable deaths among the poor).

To take a happy example of principles guiding politics from our times, consider the increasing support for gay rights in contemporary America. As far as I can tell, a lot of this support comes from people who might have had visceral reactions of disgust towards homosexuality at some point in their lives, and maybe still have such reactions at some level. But they appreciate that there's no principled reason to deprive gay people of equal rights. Recognizing this, they've gotten to the right side of the issue. This wasn't something I talked so much about in the previous post, but it's one of the best things about moral reasoning -- it helps you weed out prejudices that have gotten into your moral sentiments. It's a good thing that some people are good at that, and I wish more were.


Jeff said...


I'm one the regular commenters on Jonathan Bernstein's blog and have been following this discussion from there. This latest post of yours puts me in mind of Leon Kass, the right-wing U. of Chicago guy who was chair of George W. Bush's Bioethics Commission. Kass talks about "the wisdom of repugnance," as described here:

As far as I know, Kass has never even tried to answer the obvious counterarguments, such as the one you make here. I would welcome any further thoughts you have on all this.

CreidS said...

An example:

The Tea Party is principled. You can even say that they have far too many principles, which precludes them from even compromising on a candidate for president, much less any legislation that has anything to do with Obama.

A question:

How do they fit into what you are advocating?

Neil Sinhababu said...

I'm not sure they really are that principled, CreidS. They think they are, but they're willing to make a bunch of special exceptions for the government programs that support them. Matt Taibbi's article on older Tea Partiers on Medicare was about this.

The Jonathan Chait thing I started out by linking in the original post was talking about how you could get the GOP base (which I think is basically the Tea Party) to be okay with anything if you could spin it as anti-Obama, and against anything if you could spin it as pro-Obama. That's where they're just being anti-Obama rather than principled.