Rights, Liberalism, Public Reason and Political Correctness

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Murali

Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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28 Responses

  1. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Correct spelling is “dilemma,” two “m”s.

    And if I can get my syllabi done today, I’ll actually read your interesting post with enough attention to say something substantive.Report

  2. Avatar Roger says:

    Great post, Murali

    A far as I can tell, this matches up pretty much exactly with my beliefs on these issues.

    I agree that the best solution to the problems with how we interact is to construct institutional processes, protocols and norms to discourage win-lose activities (my shortcut term for “advancing claims on others which they do not support”). If we agree to not go for the big win of exploiting them and they agree to the same toward us, and we can all agree to institutions which enforce this norm, then we can advance or progress in total. “A” is the path to progress, the other roads degenerate down to “D.”

    In the abstract, this does imply that you need people to agree — to reach a “calculus of consent” to these rules and institutions. The appropriate way to establish this is to focus on a fairly broad, fairly sparse set of generalized norms which don’t create winners and losers based upon our station in life. The “veil” is a great way to think about this, revealing that Rawls’ ideas can merge well with classical liberalism. It also implies minimal rule wrestling at future dates, as massive rule manipulation is unlikely to be unanimous.

    It also leads to institutional choice and competition, two concepts which James H and I stressed in the Democracy forum. Since people may not be consistent in their values and goals, having multiple options available increases the range of potential norms and protocols that they can agree to without coercion. This also introduces the constructive level of competition that Hayek stresses can lead to beneficial institutional evolution. It becomes a learning process based upon people’s choices, the feedback they get based upon those choices and the comparative information that they get by seeing how their institutional choices benchmark against others.

    The next question becomes what types of claims or interferences against others are acceptable in these institutions which we would agree to? My rough way of addressing this is to ask what types of harm are acceptable? For example, it is reasonable to agree to the harm of waiting at a red light to gain the benefit of coordinated traffic. It is reasonable to agree that we can tackle a friend to prevent them from accidentally killing self.

    But is it reasonable to harm another by competing with them to cooperate with someone else? For example, what if two people are competing to sell an apple to one customer? One gains and one does nor gain. Furthermore the one who “loses” out on the sale could have been the incumbent who has been selling that apple to that customer for the last twenty years. Some would consider that a harm. I wouldn’t.

    Finally this leads to the topic of tolerance. It is possible to have desires that apply not to ourselves, but to others. For example, I could desire that you become a Christian. The problem is that if you disagree, then we are starting with a win-lose desire. The only positive sum way out of this dilemma is to abstain from intolerant desires where we wish to coerce others against their will. Intolerance leads right back into the prisoners dilemma.Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Does error have rights? One might as well, with Orwell, observe that 2 + 2 = 5. Man is a rule-follower. If the sequence of numeric symbols were 1, 2, 3, 5, 4, we might be able to tolerate such a statement. But in point of fact, the only way we could accept 2 + 2 = 5 would be if we were forced to say so.

    Nor is there any objective Good Life. The adjective Good is subjective. And what is this business about Clear Cut Obscenity? More subjective judgment. Obscenity might be defined by statute but we ought to leave it to a judge to determine if any law has been violated, or indeed if the law ought to be repealed. “I know it when I see it” is not enough justification for attacking obscenity while the First Amendment is still in effect.

    How do we resolve contradictory viewpoints? We don’t. We have laws which serve to constrain us. Choose either the left or right side of the road to drive on, it really doesn’t matter which side, but we must choose one. In a choice between two arbitrary and contradictory goods, we must make a choice. And we do.

    Society isn’t a system of coordination. It’s a set of ground rules which provide for maximal freedom. We don’t want too much cooperating or we’ll get into monopolies and collusion and all sorts of system-gaming.

    Lady Justice is blindfolded. But sometimes she peeks. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Bad Man theory of justice: if the law has predictive value, if men know that crimes will always result in punishments, they will be good as varies the truth of that prediction. Before the law, we are all sociopaths: ignorance of the law is no excuse. Before an impartial judge, (which isn’t the case in some systems, where the judge is also the prosecutor) we ought to be presumed innocent, given due process, convicted on the basis of evidence and not hearsay.

    There’s no rationality to any of this: the judge might as well be a Martian. His rationality is limited to that of a primitive vision system, looking for congruence between the definition of the crime and what’s presented to his court. But Justice peeks: the judge is not a Martian. He and the jury do form opinions.

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma has its own problems. Despite all the research and the Nash Equilibrium, we know how prisoners actually behave in prisons. Prisoners form alliances, gangs. Even within the Cook Country Jail, where I did some literacy work, the non-gang-aligned will form alliances: that group is called the Neutrons, from neutral. All such alliances fundamentally oppose the wardens. If they do cooperate with the wardens, it’s only to act in defence of their own alliance.

    Society is always based on the premise of Us versus Them. The Prisoner’s Dilemma fails because the prisoners can communicate. They operate on their own set of rules: nobody cooperates with the warden unless there’s a good reason. It’s the same reason the defence attorneys tell their clients to shut up: an open mouth gathers no feet.

    What’s with all this shouting-down of the word Bigot? Sound sorta PC to me. We can’t call people what they are, obstinately devoted to their own opinions and prejudices, intolerant of some out-group? Earlier I mentioned Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Bad Man Theory. He said this of bigotry: “The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.”. It’s a useful, descriptive noun and it’s still in the dictionary. It derives from “By God” and I find bigotry more prevalent where that phrase is heard more frequently, and more’s the pity that I must say so, for it is true.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Society isn’t a system of coordination. It’s a set of ground rules which provide for maximal freedom.

      We could wish the latter were true, but it’s not. Can’t be, since objectively societies around the world differ in the amount of freedom they have.

      The Prisoner’s Dilemma has its own problems. Despite all the research and the Nash Equilibrium, we know how prisoners actually behave in prisons.

      The PR actually doesn’t refer at all to how people behave in prisons, although what we learn from it can be applied to prisons as it can to everything else. But to say that prisoners form alliances does little to nothing to undermine the concept of the prisoner’s dilemma. To say that it fails because the prisoners communicate shows that you have a very basic familiarity with the PD, but haven’t reviewed the extensive research on the PD and communication of various types.Report

  4. Avatar MFarmer says:

    How can a person be a Rawlsian and a libertarian? Once you admit this error, the rest falls into place.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to MFarmer says:

      Start with this paper

      Then look at the guys at this site

      There are roughly three ways in which you can be a Rawlsian and a libertarian

      1) You agree with the way Rawls has framed the problem and think that his project is important. You even think that the way he initially goes about solving it is somewhere in the ballpark. You don’t necessarily accept the full description of the original position, though you may endorse something similar (kind of the way Hayek did). This will then lead you to endorse a more traditional libertarian set of principles.

      2) You go so far as to think that Rawls’s original position is the correct device with which to choose the principles of justice. You just think that more libertarian principles will be chosen. Maybe more importance will be afforded to private property rights as a basic liberty. This leads to straightforwardly libertarian conclusions

      3) You agree with Rawls on almost everything including the pirnciples of justice. You just think that the kind of institutions the principles recommend are classical liberal ones rather than the more leftist ones.

      4) You realise that Rawls was a bit of an odd duck and that when he was arguing against libertarianism, he was arguing against Nozick, Rand and Rothbard’s formulations. Rawls’s description of his ideal society “property owning democracy” is kind of vague and may plausibly (if with minor tweaks) be given a libertarian interpretation. Though, this latter way is questionable. Rawls says some things that give it a libertarian interpretation, but he says other things which don’tReport

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Murali says:

        I agree completely. The veil is a great way to set up the intellectual exercise to describe what type of world people would choose. Rawls was just wrong on some of his assumptions.

        I strongly suspect even the most liberal members of this site, if faced with living with their choice, would choose a more libertarian society. It would be more prosperous, with better safety nets.Report

        • Avatar Rod in reply to Roger says:

          We’re already with you on a great deal of items, including much of the economics. Honestly, my main gripe is with modern conservatism (read: corporatism). And in that regard, my main gripe with most libertarians (not necessarily you) is where I see them playing directly into the hands of the corporatists.

          We’re not going to see eye-to-eye but we don’t have to be blood enemies either.Report

  5. Rawls was just wrong on some of his assumptions.

    Care to be more specific?

    I strongly suspect even the most liberal members of this site, if faced with living with their choice, would choose a more libertarian society.

    Because libertarians and liberals have some overlapping perspectives I agree that there are some policy prescriptions that would be shared. But given the divergences in reasoning the libertarian-liberal entente meets major difficulties early on. Private discrimination, second generation (economic and social) rights – let alone third generation (solidarity/group) rights – not ground that’s shared. To me, the libertarian list of primary goods is far too short and the pathways libertarians offer for primary good provision are far too limited.

    Liberals tend towards a society that looks more social democratic than libertarian. Also, if I thought libertarianism adequately captured the principles resulting from the veil of ignorance thought experiment, I probably would be a libertarian instead of a liberal.Report

    • Sorry, that being a reply to Roger at 8:32, not the original post.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Creon,
        I believe the questionable assumptions are related to a combination of the following four, totally interrelated, concepts:
        1) people’s propensity toward loss aversion
        2) time frames
        3) the effects of feedback
        4) dynamic vs. static systems

        I believe people will choose societies which allow them the greatest likely opportunity to accomplish their personal goals over time, not one which minimizes the downside at a point in time. This is especially true in a dynamic world, where incentives and feedback and learning play out over time. In other words, I believe the liberal version of Rawls leads to a static situation with lower average standard of living, lower immediate downside, but greater long term downside. The key over the long haul — which libertarians stress — is to have a society which generates growing prosperity. This in effects funds the safety nets, which can become more comprehensive over time as we become richer. It is important though that the safety nets not harm the incentives which generate the prosperity.

        In summary, people will tend to choose societies which work well, become more prosperous over time, and which optimize not just their immediate needs, but the long term needs of themselves, their kids and their grand kids. My conception of the liberal state is a world which cannibalized its growth for immediate redistribution. Fast forward a generation or two, and you will be comparing a frozen, impoverished state against a growing (more libertarian) state which can afford more for even the neediest members.

        I’m not saying liberals would choose the libertarian course at point A. They obviously won’t. However, over time, as their choice becomes a frozen world of zero sum redistribution, their later selves and progeny will see the results of thinking short term. People flock to real opportunity, not dogma.

        Just to drive the point home, if the social democratic model leads to 2% growth and the free enterprise model leads to 4% growth, in a few generations, the social democratic choice becomes totally irrelevant. It’s as likely to be chosen as becoming a hunter gatherer today.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Creon Critic says:

      Also, if I thought libertarianism adequately captured the principles resulting from the veil of ignorance thought experiment, I probably would be a libertarian instead of a liberal.

      Rawls certainly doesn’tt hink that group rights are part of the primary goods. In fact, the list of primary goods that Rawls specifies look a lot like the libertarian list of primary goods.

      I suppose it is an empirical matter, but I believe that free markets + reasonably sized safety net best instantiate the two principles of justice. Now, we may differ over what size of safety net counts as reasonable, but I don’t think that is too far from the libertarian project (friedman and hayek) that it would seem implausiible that libertarianism does an adequate job of covering the two principles of justice.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:

        Also more saliently, I envision that things like group rights are going to be one of those things that cannot be publicly justified. While I can envision a safety net, or even a minimum basic income, it doesn’t seem to be the case that I necessarily envision that people have robust rights to democratic control of the workplace. How would you actually go about publicly justifying such rights. On the other hand, things tht we all share common ground on tend to be individualist considerations. i.e. it is a bare-bones social morality that forms the basis of what we can justify publicly because the barebones one is what we share. But the barebones one cannot ge you much more than our standard list of classical liberal indivdual liberties and perhaps some of the welfare state.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Murali says:

          Murali, have you read this?

          I’m not sure what the strange red strikeout is for, but it appears to be the entire essay. If not, you can read it on Jstor.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Chris says:

            Chris, the zero sum mindset of the author of the linked article was startling. The one thing even worse than me vs. you thinking is us vs. them. Murder is wrong, but genocide is even worse.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Roger says:

              I don’t think she’s taking a zero-sum approach.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

              The one thing even worse than me vs. you thinking …

              Roger, your theory reduces to “me vs you” thinking. Even if an exchange or transaction is positive sum, the relationship between the two participants may be (and in fact will be by a certain very plausible conception of what we mean by the term “rational subjective utility maximizer”) antagonistic. Each participant wants (rationally!) to maximize their subjective utility.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

                SW,

                Yeah, but if interactions are voluntary and honest, then any interaction between consenting adults with feedback can be reasonably sure to be subjectively positive. Otherwise they would refrain from participating. No?

                When I buy a surf board from a private party, I give him cash which I value less than the board, and he gives me a board for the higher valued cash. A win win. We do of course argue over the relative gains (he wants more cash, I want less) , but the existence of competing buyers and sellers makes the interaction fair and reduces or eliminates the effects of power imbalance in the negotiation.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Murali says:

        Murali,

        And respect as a primary good? Can libertarianism accommodate this? Libertarian approaches to private discrimination I’ve seen have real difficulty dealing with legacies of patriarchy, racism, and privilege – let alone endorsing any interventions to confront ongoing discrimination.

        I think your contributions here (at 11:28a and 11:35a) have served to demonstrate my point that we part ways really early on – so the libertarian* conceptual analysis of second and third generation rights will always look really incomplete from my perspective. Upon their mention you pose questions as to whether they meet public justification thresholds and reemphasize a focus on the individual rights-bearer and first generation rights.

        In short, the counterargument goes that the various generations of rights are interconnected. Separating the one from the other serves to undermine the remaining pool of rights, so to vastly oversimplify**:

        1. bread without free speech, not good.
        2. free speech without bread, not good.
        3. free speech and bread, good but not satisfactory, because of #4.
        4. free speech & bread, without development, not good.

        Now I’m not saying that libertarians celebrate the latter scenarios 1. and 2., but the emphasis for libertarians lay in the individual and the individual’s (very often) negative rights. From my perspective, at the expense of broader conceptualizations of human dignity and human rights held both individually and in groups.

        * – Forgive me if libertarian doesn’t capture your perspective, just for the purposes of laying out the competing perspectives it’s easier to just say libertarian here.

        ** – So I can’t emphasize enough how much of a simplification this is, and that I realize this is a reduction of huge debates about negative and positive rights, the meaning and use of rights, foundations and purposes of rights… shelves of books on the topic.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Murali says:

        ” but I don’t think that is too far from the libertarian project (friedman and hayek) that it would seem implausiible that libertarianism does an adequate job of covering the two principles of justice.”

        Unless you view, from an Austrian Economic perspective, Hayek and Friedman as more modern liberal than libertarian, thus, wrong on economics.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to MFarmer says:

          Oh, so you want to be that way about it huh? I thought we had all gone marginal already.

          Unless you view, from an Austrian Economic perspective, Hayek and Friedman as more modern liberal than libertarian, thus, wrong on economics.

          You realise that this is completely illogical right?

          Because, if the only mistake Hayek and Friedman make is that they have an incorrect view of economics (because in some weird world Hayek was not an Austrian economist or not sufficiently Austrian), then you are saying that if they had the right view of economics, they would not have advocated for some social safety net. i.e. if their normative framework was A-Ok. So, there is nothing in principle, wrong with the idea that the basic social institutions should secure basic liberties and consistent with them securing such basic liberties, th economic framework should function to provide equal opportunitiws for all and be to the greatest benefit of the worst off. I mean, if only you had the right positive picture of the world, you won’t make the mistakes that Friedman and Hayek made right? Even the slightest safety net will cause the worst off among us to be even worse off right?

          I think you’re off base about economics, but since I’m not an economist, what the hell do I and the other 95%+ economists who are not Austrians know? But anyway, that doesn’t mean that you have anything against the normative framework that Rawls provides.

          Or maybe the problem isn’t just with the economics. Maybe you object to the idea that economic institutions should be evaluated by the standard of how as a whole they improve the lifetime prospects of the worst off. Of course, then you have to tell me why that is wrong? Of ocurse, if you can’t exlain this to me in terms of reasons that I can appreciate, you are just oppressing me.Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:

            though how you can make normative criticisms from a perspective about economics I don’t know.Report

          • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Murali says:

            ” but I don’t think that is too far from the libertarian project (friedman and hayek) that it would seem implausiible that libertarianism does an adequate job of covering the two principles of justice.”

            Unless you view, from an Austrian Economic perspective, Hayek and Friedman as more modern liberal than libertarian, thus, wrong on economics.

            __________________

            Damn, I simply said the premise is wrong — Hayek and Friedman as libertarians — if you think as I do. I don’t know what you are going on about.Report

            • Avatar MFarmer in reply to MFarmer says:

              I suppose with enough intellectual gymnastics Rawls can be associated with libertarianism, but it’s an un-useful stretch.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to MFarmer says:

                Its only a stretch if you think Hayek and Friedman aren’t libertarians. But saying that they aren’t libertrians is a stretch. They are conventionally regarded as libertarians or at the least classical liberals. It is your characterisation of them as modern liberals which is the stretch. You will have to provide quite a bit of argument to show why we our current conventions about labelling who is a libertarian and who is not are to be discarded in favour of your idiosyncratic and extreme set of definitions.Report

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