Heap of Links: Dutch Elections, Yet More ‘Racism-or-Economics’, and Healthy Fat People

Sadly I haven’t been posting as frequently as I had hoped to, and I’m not really posting today either, but I wanted to throw out some good links.

First: The Dutch election seems to have helped the ‘Green Left’ more than Geert Wilders’ scummy Trump-knockoffery, but to have also hurt the centre-left party much more than the centre-right party. But it’s hard to interpret because there are SO MANY PARTIES. Good discussions from Eric and Crooked Timber.

Second: My posts on economic-vs.-racial ‘explanations’ of Trumpism prompted an exchange with my friend Greg, in the course of which we shared two duelling articles marshalling relevant data, one skeptical of the prospects for progressive victory through left-wing economics, one more optimistic. I’ll note that I still don’t have a firm view on this – I am trying to get comfortable living in my own ignorance.

Third: Results from a new study on healthy fat people – the gist is ‘some fat people are healthy, and those who are unhealthy enough to have chronic illnesses don’t seem to benefit from losing weight.’ Came to my attention through the science/fat-acceptance side of Tumblr. Worth noting, of course, that this is still all basically correlative info, not positive identification of causal mechanisms, as best I can see – like pretty much all the results  which ‘link’ obesity to heart disease etc. (i.e. those data don’t tell us which causes which, if either). I’m linking it to re-emphasise the point that body weight and health are two different things.

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Peter Singer, Ableism, and the Argument from Marginal Cases

Later this month, Peter Singer is giving an invited lecture at my philosophy department; ironically, I learnt this on the same day that I read a comment thread on facebook that got more than a hundred comments, about whether Singer’s treatment of disability is ableist. The discussion partly involved his support for giving parents the right to kill ‘severely disabled’ newborn children, and partly his use of the ‘argument from marginal cases‘.

(The argument from marginal cases, in essence, aims to de-stabilise an absolute divide between the moral value of humans and animal, by pointing out that any cognitive capacity lacked by all animals is also lacked by at least some humans.)

This argument is actually somewhat important to me, in that it’s part of what convinced me to become vegan. Or rather, it became part of what stabilised that decision, a key supporting plank of my reflective equilibrium. So it matters to me that the simplest and most popular versions of the argument are, I think, ableist. This post is going to be mainly me explaining why I think that about this argument and its treatment of cognitive disability, and why I’m largely in agreement with much of the criticism of Singer’s views on selective infanticide and his treatment of disability more generally.

One core claim of disability-rights critics of Singer is often some version of ‘our lives are not up for debate’, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable attitude.

“But Luke, shouldn’t everything be open to rational debate?”

Maybe in the privacy of your own head, but if you’re going to debate with other people you’re engaged in a social activity, and that activity has social presuppositions. One key presupposition is mutual respect between participants: if you question someone’s right to exist, you’re not in the kind of interaction with them where you can reasonably expect them to listen respectfully and respond thoughtfully. And many (most?) of our debates are ‘public’, in that in theory anyone could follow, learn from, and to that extent participate in them – which means that expectation of respect for participants has to extend to everyone. A public debate about whether it would be better to kill people in group X is one that implicitly excludes people in group X from the relevant ‘public’.

“But what exactly does this ‘mutual respect’ actually require? (Similarly: what exactly is a ‘right to exist’?)”

I don’t have a very good answer right now, and I don’t think I’m the best-placed person to give one: it’s neither my special area of research, nor something that I’ve ever been denied, in the relevant way. But I can indicate some specific aspects of it in relation to the particular topics at hand.

One involves the quantitative and comparative sort of thinking that debate thrives on – comparing different cases, looking for relevant similarities and differences, judging relative weights or quantities or degrees. When the topic of the debate is people’s moral status, this naturally leads into a frame of mind where questions arise like ‘how much is this sort of person’s life worth?’, or ‘how much more is this life worth than that other one?’ But asking questions like that is putting oneself in the position of weighing other’s lives – they have no application unless we have to decide who lives and who dies. And it would be terrible if we made that kind of decision about each other! Weighing up people’s lives in a numerical scale is already dehumanising.

“But Luke, sometimes decisions about who lives and who dies do have to be made – in rescue missions, warfare, healthcare policy, and so on.”

Yes, but those sorts of cases stand out as unusual and different from the normal fabric of moral life, both inter-personal and societal, where what matters is acting in accordance with an ethos of always saving lives and never destroying them.  Indeed, those cases stand out because so many of them represent tragic failures – warfare, or rescuing people from a burning building or out-of-control tram, is a situation of moral breakdown precisely because it forces us to choose among lives.

“But on some theories of ethics, the ultimate moral principles are quantitative in nature, e.g. the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

But just like we can’t use the atomic theory of matter to build bridges, I don’t think we can use a calculation of net effects on everyone affected to guide most moral decisions. And in practice, society’s willingness to think in those terms for some people and not for others is part of their oppression and a net harm.

“But even if that’s all true in practice, surely we can bracket everyday moral life and just debate the quantitative questions in harmless abstraction?”

Maybe if the questions are abstruse and unfamiliar ones, asked only by academics in seminar rooms. But disabled people don’t face this willingness to judge the value of their lives only in academic seminar rooms: it’s everywhere, on a spectrum from condescending sympathetic looks to deadly violence. And because it’s everywhere, when it does appear in a seminar room it’s often in the form of unstudied assumptions about some lives being ‘obviously’ less worth living, or less worth prolonging – the articulated tip of a society-wide iceberg. So I think it’s appropriate to challenge that sort of ‘abstraction’, to say that in its full social context it’s something bigger and weightier than just one more theoretical move.

I think there’s also an important epistemic point here. There’s a form of cultural oppression in some people’s experiences being simultaneously mostly unknown and unheard in our society, and yet also being something that others feel confident making claims about. Saying things like “[a child with haemophilia] can be expected to have a life that is worth living, even if not quite as good as that of a normal baby… When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second”, seems to me to implicitly treat as knowable things that are not realistically knowable. How much of my life has been “filled with pain and discomfort”? Would it contain more or less, if I had a differently-configured body? Whatever the difference is, how much of that would be changed by a shift in social customs or assumptions? I honestly don’t have much confidence in my ability to answer these questions sensibly, and there’s some evidence that people without disabilities are prone to significantly under-estimate the (self-reported) quality of life of those with disabilities.

This is related to a special sort of ignorance everyone is prone to, of reifying social constructs as inherent to individuals. For instance, in the above-linked piece part of the ‘suffering’ described for people with spina bifida is ‘incontinence’, and I think part of what non-disabled people might find frightening or ‘undignified’ about the thought of being disabled is needing help or special accommodations to deal with bodily functions. But all human bodies produce weird gross fluids and we nearly all rely on societal help to deal with them (I can’t build my own toilet or sewage system). To an alien being with different biology, it might seem horrifying and humiliating to think of not being to schedule these things weeks in advance. Our society takes certain kinds of ‘grossness’ and judges them normal and natural, and makes sure that wherever we go there is high-tech equipment to help us manage them. The fact that we don’t do that for other sorts of ‘grossness’ is a social fact, not a medical one. And treating the quality of life enjoyed by disabled people as something it’s safe for non-disabled people to assume can only reinforce this reification.

So what about the argument from marginal cases? A way of presenting it that I’ve seen, and which I think is ableist, starts by talking about a category of “severely cognitively disabled humans”, and makes the claim that they are, in all important cognitive respects, just like non-human animals. Since (the argument assumes, with a certain blithe optimism) we recognise moral worth in such humans, we should do so also in animals.

But the very category of ‘severely cognitively disabled humans’ here is a perfect example of the kind of epistemic casualness that I think is harmful to people with disabilities. Who are these people? Do they actually exist, or just hypothetically? What is ‘severe’ enough? The listener is encouraged not to worry too much about the details, which amounts to trusting their vague impressions about what they associate with the term ‘severely cognitively disabled humans’ as adequate to capture what’s important about such people. Some listeners might think of autistic people, others of people with Down syndrome, others of people in a persistent vegetative state, others of people with dementia. Those are very different cases, and each contains a lot of variation. And others making casual assumptions about what they are cognitively capable of is itself part of the problems they face.

There’s also the comparison with animals, which in fairness it has to be remembered is usually intended primarily to ‘drag up’ the moral status of animals, not ‘drag down’ the moral status of cognitively disabled humans. But that intention doesn’t by itself determine the social significance and effect of such a statement, either on other listeners or on oneself and one’s future reactions to people. It doesn’t guarantee that this particular instance of ‘they’re just like animals’ won’t be unconsciously connected to other, very different instances of ‘they’re just like animals’. I think it’s callous and irresponsible to add, into the melting pot of assumptions and ideas that flows through our culture, another instance of that thought, and I can totally understand why someone who has, for instance, seen their child reacted to as a curiosity rather than a person, would find it enraging.

I think (I hope?) the argument may have a more responsible and sensitive version, which doesn’t involve making casual sweeping assumptions about actual people. The way I employ it for myself, it’s more like a schema for a response to any particular proposed criterion of moral consideration. For instance, if someone says (or if I consider for myself) that humans deserve moral consideration because they can understand and use language, and animals don’t because they can’t, I ask myself how I would feel about myself or someone I know losing their linguistic abilities, and whether I would want that to change my moral status. It has the same effect, but it avoids positioning me as the omniscient arbiter of everyone’s degree of moral importance.

Because what I want, really, is not a world where animals are given any particular numerical degree of relative ‘moral weight’, but a world where people less often claim for themselves the right of life or death over animals, and over humans who are different from them.

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Still making progress

Just a quick link to a discussion of the marked decline of large-scale open armed conflict in the world.

“Death tolls from wars in the 1970s and 1980s were 4–5 times higher than they are today. We are, despite reports of religious and political insurgencies, despite high-profile terrorist killings and unrest in various corners of the globe, living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence. The world is getting less violent; we’re just more aware of the violence that happens, thanks to the mass availability of information.”

It’s useful to maintain perspective. In my view, politics across the developed world is moving in a distinctly bad direction – but politics is not all of human life, and sometimes bad politics co-exist with (are a reaction to?) good social trends.

I suppose if nuclear war breaks out between China and the USA this year, I’ll look rather silly for having posted this. But I guess if that happens, I’ll have bigger things to worry about.

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Follow-up on ‘Racism or Economics?’

A week or so ago I posted about a question I had seen asked by a lot of people dismayed by Trump’s election – ‘is it really about the economy? or really about racism?’ I claimed that this is really two different questions wrapped together – a social scientific question, of what causes or explains what, and an emotional question, of whether to empathise with anti-establishment rage (even while thinking it misdirected) or not.

Multiple friends have pushed me to recognise that there’s actually more wrapped up in this question, and some of it is can be answered more confidently.

One big issue, perhaps the simplest and most direct, is about condemnation and exculpation. To say ‘voting for Trump is racist’ implies a serious moral judgement on voters. I think sometimes when people say ‘this isn’t really racism, it’s misdirected economic distress’, the subtext is that such a moral judgement is unfair. It’s an attempt to excuse and defend, not just one explanatory hypothesis among many.

But, as a friend of mine pointed out, the explanatory question is actually fairly irrelevant to this question of condemnation. Even if racist sentiment wasn’t the primary motive for an action, the action can still be egregiously racist – can still express and reflect a failure to see non-white people as fully human. And I have to say that I think voting for Donald Trump is an example of such an action.

If some supposedly economy-focused voter, who really just wanted more tax cuts or more infrastructure spending (or whatever Trump was promising that week), was willing to support someone who associated with, promoted, and inspired explicit white supremacists, promised to ban a religion from entering the country, and constantly associated undocumented migrants with a non-existent rise in crime… then they were expressing indifference to the obvious fact that electing this candidate would impose life-ruining costs on millions of non-white people. And that indifference is itself dehumanising and racist.

The other question is what to do. I think for some people saying ‘it’s really about the economy’ is a way of saying ‘what we need to do is reach out to Trump voters with a economically populist, but anti-racist, message.’ For others, saying ‘racism is the driving force’ is a way of saying ‘what would work best is more militancy, more confrontation, more active assertion of our opposition.’ Which of those two stances is correct isn’t a question about why things happened in the past but about what could happen in the future.

While I’m perfectly happy saying that voting for Trump is a racist thing to do, I’m really uncertain about that practical question. In part that’s because both sides can say, with some plausibility, that the other plan has already been followed and failed. Decades of politicians condemning racism in the harshest terms, decades of politicians promising the address the ‘very real concerns’ of anti-immigrant voters, and here we are.

Obviously the question of what is the best political strategies for progressives is an important one, but it’s a daunting one and I’m not going to try to answer it here. I think there’s some value in distinguishing the four different questions noted above, and in recognising their significant independence of one another – in particular, that even if economic factors are the biggest explanatory factor for why people vote for Trump, doing so is still racist.

(I should also note that the question of how progressives should deal with Trump-voters is a different and harder question than how they should deal with Trump and his government, which I think is another relatively easy question: oppose and obstruct it at every possible turn.)

Posted in Uncategorized, US Politics | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

On the Supposed Logical Consequences of Free Movement

(Part 1 here). The other thing my Leave-voting friend said (echoing things I’ve heard in conversation from others) was this:

“Secondly, if migration is a right and A Good Thing, then logically population will flow to the 1st world cities and eventually you will have a few incredibly densely populated conurbations and the rest of the world largely abandoned.  Is that a good outcome?  Many countries – the UK for one – constructed policies to prevent that happening within their states because most people felt it was not.”

 I can see where this concern comes from, but as stated I think it’s a kind of ‘spherical-cow physics‘: if you simplify your model enough, with a single metric of desirability and people’s choices explained simply by desirability, then the logical result will be everyone living in a few super-cities (which, for the record, I don’t think is a good outcome). But such simplified models aren’t really useful, for various reasons:

  • People vary in what’s desirable to them (hence lots of people either never move to big cities, or actively move away from them);
  • People have lots of reasons not to move, like attachment to home, family, culture, etc.;
  • There are feedback effects (a destination can become less attractive if it’s too densely populated);
  • Things other than migration affect population, like birth and death rates (if one area has much higher fertility than another, migration from the first to the second would stabilise populations, not concentrate them);
  • Timescale matters – a problem in ten years is one thing, a problem in a hundred years is i) probably beyond our ability to affect, and ii) may well not happen just because some other parameter will change drastically in the intervening period.

But it’s a bit unfair to harp on issues like these. I suspect the point isn’t really about mathematical modelling, but more a sort of test of what sort of disagreement we’re having: are supporters of free movement so fanatical that they’ll say ‘yeah, even if it would lead to dystopian overcrowding in London, I’d still oppose deportations etc.’? Or will they instead say ‘no, if that was the foreseeable result I’d support border controls, but that’s not what will happen’? If the former, I come across like a crazy zealot; if the latter, I seem to have conceded the principle and the disagreement is just empirical.

And it’s not like overdemand for housing, infrstructure, etc. resulting from sudden rushes of people to the same big city isn’t a real issue – that kind of ‘overcrowding’ has been a big thing, for instance, at least since the industrial revolution (though my understanding is that it’s debated how much this was about the carrot of jobs and how much about active stick-type efforts to drive peasants off the land). Sometimes people arrive faster than housing, transport, and other sorts of infrastructure is expanded, and that’s a problem.

But I still think the choice which my friend’s argument tries to push onto supporters of free movement is sort of a false one. Mismatches between where people are moving and the infrastructure to support them can be addressed in a variety of ways – coercive intervention, subtler forms of incentive-manipulating (e.g. policies to encourage jobs or people to go to places more able to accommodate them), greater investment in infrastructure, etc. Saying that coercion isn’t a legitimate tool isn’t saying you can’t do anything at all.

(To use the reproductive analogy I like to return to, sudden changes in people’s reproductive habits can also be disruptive to public services etc., and that warrants political effort to solve those problems. But coercing individuals into having kids, or into not having kids, isn’t a legitimate tool for that political effort.)

Moreover, border controls arguably cause more severe overcrowding than they prevent – they just push it into refugee camps, detention centres, and developing countries that happen to border war zones. My friend’s question suggests abstracting from here-and-now to consider hypothetical long-term outcomes, but the problems worried about are already happening, in part because of the policies the question seeks to justify.

Posted in British Politics | Tagged , | 4 Comments

On Ownership of Territory and ‘Taking Back Control’

A Leave-voting friend who read my post last week emailed me some questions:

“You say we don’t own our national territory, but an awful lot of people feel they want to, and in a democracy that means there is the risk–and now the fact–that power may settle on them…so is it sufficient to be right, when the political will is wrong?  What this means is that progressive politicians may have to do more than protest about views they don’t agree with…I think the left vs right metaphor may be exhausted and no longer helps us to understand politics…see [this guardian article].

Secondly, if migration is a right and A Good Thing, then logically population will flow to the 1st world cities and eventually you will have a few incredibly densely populated conurbations and the rest of the world largely abandoned.  Is that a good outcome?  Many countries – the UK for one – constructed policies to prevent that happening within their states because most people felt it was not.”

These two comments are distinct enough that I’ll respond to them in separate posts. The first one touches on some things I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I half-regret the phrasing I used in that previous post, that ‘we don’t own our national territory’, because it suggests a general hostility to the idea of collective ownership and collective action. It sounds like I’m saying we should just think in terms of globe-trotting individuals and some laws for them to operate under. And that’s not what I think. In a sense I support people collectively owning their national territory, but it all depends on what ‘collective ownership’ is contrasting with, what’s being denied. Is it contrasting with private ownership, or ownership by an invading rival collective? Then I’d support it, even while opposing a collective right to exclude others from moving here.

But the really important contrast, I think, is with simple powerlessness, with bad things happening and everyone hating it but not being able to do anything about it. The Brexit rallying cry was ‘take back control’, and that’s an important and valid aspiration. What dismayed me about ‘Leave’ messaging is that the way it actually spelt out ‘take back control’ was overwhelmingly in terms of taking it back from someone else, whether immigrants or the EU, identified either as having seized control from us, or as needing to be controlled.

But control isn’t zero-sum: control for one party isn’t inversely proportional to control for another. You can give one community of people more control over their lives without anyone else having to lose control, by making them organised enough to identify what they want they want done and organised enough to get it implemented. Conversely, chucking out some designated bad guys, all by itself, often does nothing to increase people’s actual control over things (the difficulties of so many post-colonial states is surely a supportive data-point here).

So I don’t see a principled contradiction between open borders and collective control: establishing collective control (the good kind of ‘owning our national territory’) has really very little to do with being able to coercively block individual travel plans – it’s much more to do with having institutions and people who can regulate macro-scale phenomena in ways that are actually effective and responsive to ordinary people’s interests. It’s largely to do with what we might call (deliberately unfashionably) ‘economic planning’, or (perhaps more fashionably) ‘economic democracy’.

Ok, so all this may be fine and dandy in principle. What about actual politics, here and now? I’m much less confident in what I think about that – partly because reality is more complicated than principle, partly because principles are my professional forte, more than political strategy.

But I do think my friend is right to suggest that “progressive[s]… have to do more than protest about views they don’t agree with.” In particular, suppose I’m right that people’s right to collectively control the conditions of their lives is limited by the rights of individuals. Even so, when I say that, or when the government says that, or when an elite university or the European commission says that, it’s perfectly natural for Leave-supporters to hear it as another attempt to impose outside control over them. I said above that what dismays me about the Brexit campaign is the oppositional, zer0-sum framing: ‘take back control’ interpreted as ‘take control away from these others who have too much of it’. To greet the result with ‘no, you can’t do that‘ risks feeding into exactly that zero-sum framing.

So for purposes of political strategy it’s probably a good idea to be positive first, not just unremittingly negative. Not just identifying ways that Brexit is bad, but offering positive ways to ‘take back control’ against the impersonal drives of our own capitalist social system rather than against other people.

But I’m far from the first to say that, and I don’t at present have a well-developed sense of how to build in that direction (though the article linked above mentions the New Economics Foundation, so check them out).

In a way my choice of a topic for a first post played into the narrative of left-leaning people just denouncing the right and saying ‘you can’t do that‘. But immigration is such a prominent topic that not addressing it, and not starting honestly with my own starting-point, would have felt like tip-toeing around an elephant.

(Next post will address the second half of my friend’s comment, which echoes things I’ve heard from a few different people at different times.)

Posted in British Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Is it the economy (stupid), or racism (stupid)?

(The title is a riff on ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’)

Why did so many people vote for Trump? Over the last year I’ve read a lot of articles and posts that, starting from dismay, take one of the following two lines:

  • It’s unfair, patronising, and simplistic to just write off Trump-votes as expressions of xenophobia – we should focus on the real economic distress that these people are feeling, on stagnant wages and lost jobs.
  • It’s evasive special-pleading to not recognise the driving force of xenophobia or racism here (and actually more patronising not to take people at their word); xenophobic racism is a real and powerful phenomenon in Western societies, not just an epiphenomenon of economic interests.

Are Trump (and Le Pen, UKIP, etc.) doing well because of economic hardship, or because of racism? Do they reflect fallout from the 2008 financial crisis or a backlash against multiculturalism and the progress of things like the civil rights movement? (Here’s just one example, which expresses the dispute especially clearly: is “White Nationalism… the prime mover, [or] a symptom”?)

I always feel torn by this question,  and I think part of the challenge is that it’s really more than one question, wrapped up together. On one level it’s a causal question, of the sort that dispassionate social science could investigate: what in fact led to all this? Which past events would have had to not occur, for this not to have occurred?

Would all this not have happened, if there had been no financial crisis and average incomes had kept on increasing (or, more radically, if the benefits of that increase had been spread more evenly)?

Or was some sort of xenophobic backlash inevitable, however well people were doing economically, with things like the financial crisis just providing the pretext and the catalyst, and global movement of jobs and labour just providing the target?

It’s hard to say with confidence. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive factors: maybe both factors are necessary, maybe the outcome we see wouldn’t have happened without both economic stagnation and also pre-existing traditions of xenophobic nationalism. More social science is needed, I suppose, and if anyone can suggest relevant data I’d welcome it.

But there’s another question lying beneath the causal one, a question of emotional relating. The movements in question express a lot of anger, and whether we think of xenophobia as the prime mover or as a symptom decides, in part, how we relate to that anger.

If this anger is really a product of economic distress, then most left-of-centre people will think that the anger is, in itself, appropriate and warranted – just displaced, misdirected. The reaction will be “yes, you’re right to be angry – but the right target isn’t migrants, it’s capitaism/neoliberalism/laissez-faire economics/globalisation/etc.”

But if xenophobia is the prime mover, then most left-of-centre people will think that the anger is unwarranted, something that should simply be let go of. The reaction will be “no, you’re not right to be angry – the things you’re angry about (racial diversity, the declining prestige of Christianity, etc.) are good things that don’t deserve your anger. Maybe the lefties also think you should be angry about capitalism, but that would be a distinct, independent anger.

(Note that both of these views are compatible with being angry at Trump voters – and they should! The question is whether that condemnation says ‘you’ve made a terrible mistake in directing your in-itself-warranted anger’ or ‘you’ve made a terrible mistake out of unwarranted anger’.)

If this is the question on left-leaning people’s minds – whether to endorse xenophobic anger but see it as misdirected, or reject it as something that should be let go – how could we answer it? Well, a question of what this anger is ‘really about’ is a question of meaning, of what a pattern of feelings and thoughts in someone’s mind is representing.

Unfortunately, the most plausible way of thinking about this question of meaning would take us back to the causal question. Someone’s anger is ‘really about’ whatever most directly caused it, even if they for whatever reason express it as being about something else. But then we’re back to asking what caused the anger in question – what in fact made these people so angry in the first place? If the right answer is “a mixture of things”, then is there even a determinate fact about what the anger is ‘really about’?  And if there isn’t, how should left-leaning people relate to it – as something to be redirected, or simply rejected? Is it psychologically or sociologically possible to do ‘a bit of both’?

(Apologies for a post that began with a question and ended with more questions. I’m not saying I’m uncertain about whether to fight this xenophobic movement with all means available – we have to.)

Posted in Political Philosophy | 5 Comments