Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A RESPONSE TO ANDREW LIONEL BLAIS


Andrew Lionel Blais asked a provocative and interesting question in response to an earlier blog post and I have been mulling over how I might respond.  Let me give it a try.  [Andrew, by the way, wrote his doctoral dissertation with me at UMass back in the day, and then published it as a fine book, On The Plurality of Actual Worlds, with UMass Press.]  Here is what he asked:  "How would you begin the talk with your socio-political doppelganger who is now wondering about the problem of reintegrating the extreme leftists into American society?"

This is, I believe, a question that is both pressing and extremely difficult to answer.  Let me begin by recalling a fact that has been much discussed in various ways by theorists of democracy over the past three centuries:  There is a fundamental difference between conflicts of interest and conflicts of principle in a state that aspires to make decisions about matters of public importance by means of some form of popular democracy.  Conflicts of interest can be compromised;  conflicts of principle cannot be.  One thinks, in the American context, of such interest conflicts as the struggle over control of range land by farmers and ranchers [a favorite theme of old Westerns], or the conflict between creditors who sought low or non-existent inflation [so that debtors pay back notional dollars that are worth as much as those they borrowed] and debtors [principally farmers with mortgages on their land] who felt oppressed by the gold standard and wanted steady inflation that would progressively diminish the real burden of their debt  [the theme of The Wizard of Oz].  Disputes over taxation and the role of the Federal Government in the creation of a social safety net are also conflicts of interest, for all that they are often portrayed as matters of principle. 

But there are some conflicts that truly are over matters of principle, and it is very difficult to see how these can be handled effectively within the American political system, which is designed to deal with conflicts of interest.  The most important issue of principle in the history of America was of course slavery, and nothing short of a long and bloody war could resolve the issue decisively, leaving resentments, hatreds, and political deformations that persist to the present day.  Much of American public life for the past two hundred and twenty-five years has been the story of the playing out of that conflict of principle.

But both this principled dispute over slavery and the various conflicts of interest are secular in nature.  We are confronted today with a number of conflicts of principle that are essentially religious in their motivation and intensity, most notably the conflict over abortion.  [I tend to think that the dispute over same sex marriage, despite the frequent appeal of biblical texts by its opponents, has fundamentally psychological rather than religious roots, although I might of course be mistaken.]   If someone believes, as a matter of religious faith, that God implants a soul in a foetus at the moment of conception, and that deliberate termination of that pregnancy, even in its first hours, is therefore the unjustifiable murder of a human being with an immortal soul, there is simply no acceptable and satisfactory compromise possible with someone who rejects that premise.  In the nature of the case, no accumulation of facts can resolve the conflict, which is after all a matter of religious faith, nor can any political process involving elections and decisions by courts lead that person to accept anything short of a complete ban on all forms of the deliberate termination of any pregnancy. 

I do not think there is any conversation, debate, focus group, or process of political negotiation that can resolve conflicts of principle of this sort.  What then is to be done?

The best course available, so far as I can see, is to separate out from the jumbled complex of issues setting the far right today against the middle and the left all those issues that are genuinely conflicts of interest, regardless of whether they have been cast by one side or the other as issues of principle.  The Affordable Care Act, taxation levels, income inequality, the relative power of the states and the federal government, the status of undocumented Americans, climate change, the role of the federal government in managing a capitalist economy -- these are one and all conflicts of interest, and therefore susceptible to the sort of resolution that the American political system was designed to accomplish.

If this sorting out can be carried through, there will still remain irresoluble conflicts of principle that cannot be accommodated by politics.  Since I believe that time is on my side with regard to these issues, I am content to have them continue to fester unresolved.  But if you believe that the direction of evolution of American society is against you, as so many on the right seem to, then you may become either more and more alienated and withdrawn from America as a whole or alternatively more prone to violence as the only hope for ending what you sincerely believe to be an evil condemned by God.  There is nothing politics or discussion can do to change that.

7 comments:

Chris said...

Maybe I'm confusing something, but I don't see many of those issues you listed as issues of interest. My understanding of the right is that on principle they think negative liberty to be the ultimate form of freedom, and ANYTHING that compromises that principle is therefore unethical. So why can't the right-wing libertarian just respond to everything you listed as a debate over interest, as in fact also a debate about principles, and then have a resounding free-market capitalist response to all of them?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is of course possible, and I agree that the tendency has been to construe all disagreements as matters of principle, which makes any sort of compromise impossible. I was trying to answer Andrew's question by suggesting that if at all possible, we try to separate out disputes that are clearly disputes over principle from everything else and then try to get our opponnents to see what remains as a conflict of interest. If we fail, of course, then there is nothing for it but to fight. I do not relish the prospect of a literal civil war over these matters, even if I think it is one that my side would win.

Jack said...

I wonder if even if we can cash out a wide range of disputes over economic equality in terms of conflicts of interest, there lurks a deeper conflict of principle in the form of something like conceptions of justice.* I'm thinking of the anarchist/socialist view that one does not earn the right to anything material; a just distribution is from each according to his ability etc. The center left, progressive left, and far left--right up until the point that they reject any form of capitalism--probably thinks that a just distribution of wealth has something to do with equality of opportunity, something to do with de facto equality, and a lot to do with being rewarded for work, intelligence, innovation, etc. There's also a fundamental difference in principle between believing in purely horizontal organization/consensus democracy and some form of hierarchical organization, however limited. Given that the part of the far left we're probably concerned with is embodied (at least in the public imagination) by the Occupy movement, I would think that both of those differences in principle are relevant.

Maybe the "left" we're worried about doesn't include radical leftist or post-leftist ideology, in which case what counts as the left is probably captured by conflicts of principle. But radicals probably can never be integrated into a society that is basically liberal; we may vote and participate in civic life because the revolution isn't coming and it's the best we can do, and we'll be thrilled if America ever reaches its maximally egalitarian state (which maybe looks like a Nordic democratic socialism or something), but there's no recognizable version of America with which we could ever be ideologically in sync.

*I really don't like talking about this stuff in terms of justice as a central concept, and both of these examples suggest that the relevant principles have more to do with individualism vs. something more holistic, but talking about justice is easier to do clearly in fewer words.

**A lot of what I'm saying is in In Defense of Anarchism so I feel sort of silly raising it as an objection here, but I do so because presumably you mostly agree with what I'm saying and yet it seems to the point of the original question.

Chris said...

But I do think that meta-ethically so to speak, you and I can defend for instance socialism against the principle of negative liberty, i.e., our principles are better, and we can make the case. This is not a stalemate.

Jack said...

Just looked over what I wrote and realized that I mis-typed: the first sentence of the second paragraph should read "...is probably captured by conflicts of interest." That may have been obvious, but just in case...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I agree. That is what I was trying to get at in the third paragraph of my follow-up post. Take a look at that and see whether you do not agree.

Michael said...

Robert:

You write that "If someone believes, as a matter of religious faith, that God implants a soul in a foetus at the moment of conception, and that deliberate termination of that pregnancy, even in its first hours, is therefore the unjustifiable murder of a human being with an immortal soul, there is simply no acceptable and satisfactory compromise possible with someone who rejects that premise. In the nature of the case, no accumulation of facts can resolve the conflict, which is after all a matter of religious faith, nor can any political process involving elections and decisions by courts lead that person to accept anything short of a complete ban on all forms of the deliberate termination of any pregnancy. "

I am not sure why you describe the view that fetuses become persons at conception one that can emerge only from religious thinking. We all believe that there are such things as 'people', and the question is when does the mass of cells that begins to propagate on fertilization becomes a person. When do you believe this occurs, and what is your basis for believing this? Is an infant a person? Is a 22 year old with down syndrome a person? Why or why not? I am not advocating any view about this matter, just aiming to point out that it's not as clear-cut a philosophical issue as many would like to believe, and many putatively liberal viewpoints end up being just as tendentious and without robust theoretical groundwork supporting them as the neoconservative views that they aim to combat. I challenge you to produce a truth-functional argument in favor of whatever your view is, instead of sloppily framing any view that departs from your own as religious.