the position of power redux

Robin Hanson begins this post by quoting a passage in Tyler Cowen’s new book Stubborn Attachments in which Cowen talks about whether economics is about satisfying people’s preferences. Hanson wants to reflect on this, but he also wants to talk about something else:

Tyler seems to use a standard moral framework here, one wherein we are looking at others and trying to agree among ourselves about what moral choices to make on their behalf. (Those others are not included in our conversation.)

It has long been remarkable to me how often social scientists, and philosophers when they concern themselves with public issues, consider their subjects from the position of power. As I say in that post I just linked to,

There is a kind of philosopher — an all too common kind of philosopher — who when considering such topics habitually identifies himself or herself with power. Pronouns matter a good deal here. Note that in Roache’s comments “we” are the ones who have the power to inflict punishment on “someone.” We punish; they are punished. We control; they are controlled. We decide; they are the objects of our decisions. Would Roache’s speculations have taken a different form, I wonder, if she had reversed the pronouns?

I’m therefore glad to see Hanson push back on this habit. He envisions “a more inclusive conversation, one where the people about whom we are making moral choices become part of the moral ‘dealmaking’ process. That is, when it is not we trying to agree among ourselves about what we should do for them, but when instead we all talk together about what to do for us all.“

But consider how rare this perspective is, especially among academics dealing with public policy in any form. Imagine academic treatises on policy written from the perspective of people who have policies imposed on them whether they like those policies or not. Maybe there are such treatises, but I haven’t seen them.

Principalities, Powers, and BLM

Eugene Rivers:

For the most part, BLM activists – like the post-1965 SNCC activists, the Black Panther Party, and assorted other radical black groups before them – exhibit little interest in, or comprehension of, the larger lessons of history. This is because they lack the deep spiritual and moral insight that must be the grounding for any sustainable movement. Having rejected the God of their fathers, they have also rejected the fatherhood of God.

This philosophical rejection is an act of spiritual and cultural suicide. Failure to discern the demonic character of white supremacy limits these activists’ ability to understand the fight they are engaged in, and hinders their efforts to develop long-term strategies. They can only describe the sadistic violence they witness and never fully understand or conquer it, so long as they ignore its spiritual source.

More importantly, they fail to use the only means of combatting the demonic: intercessory prayer. Instead, they are easily sucked into the spirit of the demonic themselves as they resort to violence, anger, and hate – a failing less common in the BLM movement than in Antifa, though the danger applies to both.

“the power of a discourse that is never open to reply”

Uttering the unacceptable in prose and exploring the elusive, not-yet-captured depth of things in poetry have in common the crucial recognition that we shan’t learn about ourselves or our world – including our political world – if we are prevented from hearing things to argue with and things that leave us frustrated and (in every sense) wondering. Our current panics about ‘offence’ are at their best and most generous an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations (my freedom of ‘offending’ speech may be your humiliation, a confirmation of your exclusion from ordinary public discourse). But at its worst it is a patronising and infantilising worry about protecting individuals from challenge; the inevitable end of that road is a far worse entrenching of unquestionable power, the power of a discourse that is never open to reply. Debates about international issues like Israel and Palestine, or issues of social and personal morals – abortion, gender and sexuality, end of life questions – are regularly shadowed by anxiety, even panic, about what must not be said in public, and also by the sometimes startlingly coercive insistence on the ‘rational’ and canonical status of one perspective only. On both sides of all such debates, there can be a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not in the silencing of disagreement but in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense ‘civil’ disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds.

Rowan Williams

“that ultimate subversion of all human power and authority”

[Peter’s horrified reaction at Jesus’ washing of his feet] is the reaction of normal human nature. That the disciple should wash his master’s feet is normal and proper. But if the master becomes a menial slave to the disciple, then all proper order is overturned…. All of us except those at the very bottom have a vested interest in keeping it so, for as long as we duly submit to those above us we are free to bear down on those below us. The action of Jesus subverts this order and threatens to destabilize all society. Peter’s protest is the protest of normal human nature.

… This is not just an acted lesson in humility; Peter could have understood that…. The foot washing is a sign of that ultimate subversion of all human power and authority which took place when Jesus was crucified by the decision of the “powers” that rule this present age. In that act the wisdom of this world was shown to be folly, and the “powers” of this world were disarmed (Col 2:15). But “flesh and blood” — ordinary human nature — is in principle incapable of understanding this. It is “to the Jew a scandal, to the Greek folly.” Only those whom the risen Christ will call and to whom the Holy Spirit will be given will know that this folly is the wisdom of God, and this weakness is the power of God. At that moment, as the man he is, Peter cannot understand. The natural man makes gods in his own image…. How can the natural man recognize the supreme God in the stooping figure of a slave, clad only with a loincloth?

the raw appeal to power

That ‘something else’ has a lot to do with the complexities of religious loyalty, as I’ve said. But it also has to do with a basic commitment to the kind of institutional pluralism and tolerance of principled dissent that the United States has always wisely tried to cultivate. And here I find Drum’s overall perspective simply appalling. The idea that the state should only ‘tread carefully’ on issues of liberty, conscience and freedom of religion in areas where polling data shows significant support for the position or community in question is a recipe for majoritarian tyranny and government overreach. The logic that he’s applying to orthodox Catholics could be applied just as easily to the Amish, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, and a host of other groups that don’t have the kind of institutional resources that Roman Catholicism can muster in its own defense. Yes, sometimes state interests are compelling enough to trump religious liberties, and defenders of this mandate have every right to make that case. But the argument that the state’s interests can trump religious liberties so long as the group of people being asked to violate their consciences is small enough is not an argument at all. It’s just a raw appeal to power.